If you ask ten adults to name some of the favorite things about the Christmas season, most all of them will list the music of Christmas in their top five. Those who don’t are deficient in understanding and soul, and should be exiled from civilized society.
Now, to be clear, when I talk about the music of Christmas I am not thinking of such unmitigated tragedies as Santa Baby, Last Christmas or Christmas Shoes. You could fill the Grand Canyon with horrendous Christmas cd’s, and would likely run out of room. Any artist or band that sells more than a dozen copies of their first album is soon persuaded by a soulless manager with visions of dollar signs dancing in his head to put out a Christmas CD. And if you’ve bought or listened to “Merry Christmas from the Brady Bunch”, “Roseanne Barr Sings the Christmas Classics” or Justin Beiber’s “Under the Mistletoe” then I want you to lay down, curl up into the fetal position covered with a blanket, and reflect on how your life turned out this way.
No, I am thinking, and hopefully when you are also, of the great Carols that have been handed down to us for hundreds of years, with hauntingly beautiful tunes and wondrous lyrics. The wonder of advent, God appearing in human flesh, has inspired the pen and piano of such luminaries as Christina Rosetti, Fredrick Handel, and Charles Wesley.
But some beloved carols have less august authorship, like O Holy Night. But I can’t help but think that in some ways the story of this carol embodies some wonderful truths about Christmas.
Our story begins in the French town of Roquemaure at the end of 1843. The church organ had recently been renovated. To celebrate the event, the parish priest wanted to have a new poem written for the Christmas Eve service where the organ would be introduced. But who in the village could write such a poem?
Placide Cappeau was the son of a winemaker and barrel-maker, and was destined to follow his father in the family business but after a childhood accident that cost him his left hand, he turned to the university, receiving a degree in literature and law. Eventually following in his father’s footsteps, to an extent, he became a merchant of wines and spirits. However, his focus in life was literature. He was known in the village as a fine amateur poet. He was also known for something else: he did not really like religion or the Catholic Church (the only church he knew). Like most everyone in town, he would have identified as a Christian, but was more attached to socialism than the Church.
Nonetheless, the priest asked Cappeau to write the poem, and the latter, surprised but sensing the honor of the task, agreed. On a long and dusty carriage ride to Paris, using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, “Cantique de Noel” had been completed.
Cappeau decided that his “Cantique de Noel” was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician’s hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.
The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg. For you see, Adolphe Adams was a Jew.
For Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, moved by friendship and the beautiful lyrics of the poem, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Literal English Translation of Cantinque de Noel
Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.
People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer! Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The Redeemer has broken every bond
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those whom iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song–which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France–was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church, who decried it as too secular. Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
Not only did this American writer–John Sullivan Dwight–feel that this wonderful Christmas songs needed to be introduced to America, he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: “He sees a brother where there was only a slave. This matched Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight’s English translation (really more of a paraphrase) of O Holy Night quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.
John Sullivan Dwight’s version
O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine,Oh night divine
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here come the wise men from Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
Legend has it that the French Catholic Church finally received the song back into its worship services after an encounter between French and German troops during the Franco-Prussian War. During a lull in fighting, a French soldier began singing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans were so moved that they responded by singing one of Luther’s hymns. The “songfest” encouraged the soldiers to honor a truce for 24 hours on Christmas.
The end of this story involves the beginning of modern technology–the invention of the radio. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden (a former colleague of Thomas Edison) was experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph. Now in 1906 the only type of radios that existed were wireless transmitters that picked up code. Fessenden was tinkering in his office and proceeded to do something that had never been done before. He broadcast a human voice across the airwaves. Speaking into a microphone he’d rigged, Fessenden read Luke Chapter 2 from his Bible.
As he uttered the words, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” amazed radio operators on ships and over wireless code transmitters heard the Gospel being read through their speakers. Those who heard those first words over the radio recall that they thought they were witnessing a miracle.
Meanwhile, Fessenden had no idea who, if anyone, was hearing his broadcast. After completing his reading from the Gospel of Luke, he picked up his violin, sat close to his microphone, and played the familiar music to O Holy Night – making it the first song to ever be played over the airwaves.
For many people today, this is their favorite Christmas carol. The song written by a socialist wine merchant, set to music by a Jewish composer, banned by church leaders, kept alive by the French people, adopted by American abolitionists, sung by troops in the trenches, and the first song broadcast to the whole world by radio: O Holy Night.
Let’s close with this great rendition (though it totally leaves out the third verse):