O Holy Night: An Amazing History

French Origins

It’s winter, 1847. In a small French town, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure – wine commissioner and poet instead of church-goer – pens a poem for Christmas Mass, as requested by the local priest.

Using the Bible as his guide, Cappeau imagined what it would be like to witness Jesus on the night of his birth and wrote the poem “Cantique de Noel” (Song of Christmas). Here’s a literal English translation:

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 that 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!

Even though Cappeau was not religious, he felt the power behind his own words. So he turned to his friend Adolphe Charles Adams and asked to set the poem to music.

Now Adams was a well-known composer, but he was hesitant for one reason: Adams was Jewish. (This is important for later). Nevertheless, he put aside his own religious beliefs and composed the song to be sung at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve a few weeks later.

“Cantique de Noel” exploded in popularity across France. Catholic Church services everywhere incorporated the hymn in their Christmas masses, and families sang it at home throughout the Christmas season.

But. After a few years, Cappeau openly left the Catholic Church and joined the socialist movement. And then the church leaders discovered Adams was Jewish. “Cantique de Noel” was then renounced by the church and deemed unfit for worship due to its “total absence of the
spirit of religion”. Families continued to sing it at home, however, and then something wonderful happened in 1855. American writer John Sullivan Dwight brought it to America.

christmas ornament

O Holy Night in America

Dwight instantly connected to the beautiful words of “Cantique de Noel”. He wrote a new English translation and renamed the song O Holy Night:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’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 world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O 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 the 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.

In America, O Holy Night was celebrated as a hymn of freedom. The last verse resonated across the country as the cause for abolitionism grew.

And it gets better.

Two Incredible Stories

As the story goes, the French Catholic Church finally brought the song back into its services as a result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. After a lull in the fighting, a French soldier began singing “Cantique de Noel”. In response, the Germans started singing one of their Lutheran hymns. This “song exchange” resulted in a 24 hour Christmas truce.

Then in 1906 – Christmas Eve – professor Reginald Fessenden was tinkering around with a radio in his office. Until this point, radios were only used to send messages via code. However, on Christmas Eve in 1906, Fessenden was the first person to broadcast a human voice across radio waves.

What do you think he said?

Fessenden read out loud Luke Chapter 2, the Christmas story. Radio operators across the world were amazed and astonished to hear an actual human voice on their radio – reading about Jesus, no less! Fessenden then picked up his violin, sat close to the microphone, and played O Holy Night – making it the first song to be broadcasted on the radio.

O Holy Night has such an important and beautiful history. The prayerful words tell of a baby boy who lived to save humanity, and the flowing music supports and adds to the hymn’s emotion. O Holy Night has resonated with people across time and location, bringing us together to stop conflict and spread a message of love and peace.


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