O Holy Night
I’m going to tell you the story behind my favourite Christmas carol, O Holy Night.
In France, 1847, a parish priest asked the local wordsmith Placide Cappeau to write a poem for Christmas mass. Placide was the son of a cooper and was supposed to follow on in the family business, but God clearly had other plans for him. Thus, when Cappeau was eight years old, an accident befell him, his hand was amputated, and he ended up being a man of letters instead.
Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau pictured himself right there at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, amidst the hay, beneath a shining star, witness to the greatest miracle on earth. He was so inspired that not only did the words tumble out of him quickly, but he envisioned them as a powerful song rather than a poem. As such, he required a musician’s touch, so he asked his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to compose its score. Adolphe was Jewish, so the words of the poem represented a day he didn’t celebrate and worshipped a man he, as a Jew, did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, his finished production pleased both poet and parish priest and Cantique de Noel was performed three weeks later at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The song quickly found its way into the hearts of the Catholic French, who loved its message of grace and mercy. But then Placide Cappeau upset the church elders by becoming part of the socialist movement. Remember, these were the days of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, of peasant versus let-them-eat-cake, and the church were an established part of the latter. The church leaders were doubly apoplectic when they discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, and the song was denounced, now deemed unfit because it lacked the spirit of religion.
Even though the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it. And a decade later, American abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight happened to hear it being performed. He loved its vibrant message of hope, especially the verse that says ‘Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease’. He returned to America with it, translated it into English, and it became a popular hymn sung by the Unionist North during the Civil War to end the slavery of African-Americans.
Back in Europe, the little hymn maintained its grip on French hearts and it also became a song of peace and brotherhood during the Franco-Prussian War. During a lull in fighting, on Christmas Eve, 1870, a French soldier began singing the song. The Germans were so moved by the lyrics that they responded by singing a Lutheran hymn. The songfest encouraged a twenty-four hour truce in the spirit of religion.
But the story doesn’t end there. We now skip forward to 1906. Inventor Reginald Fessenden was experimenting with an alternator-transmitter in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, home to the Pilgrims who had left Europe, seeking religious freedom. On Christmas Eve, Fessenden sent out the first ever entertainment broadcast, electing to read the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, on which our beloved hymn was based. All across the Atlantic, wireless operators on ships could hear a man’s voice over the air waves. This was the first radio broadcast of a man’s voice … and it was the Word of God, the story of the birth of Christ. Filled with the spirit of Christmas, Fessenden picked up a violin and began to play a tune: O Holy Night. That little song, written by the amputee son of a wine merchant, set to music by a Jewish composer, banned by church leaders, kept alive by French peasants, adopted by American abolitionists, sung by troops in the trenches, was now being broadcast live by invisible radio waves from the land of the Pilgrim Fathers; those simple, beautiful words reflecting on humanity’s redemption now being spread across the world:
“Fall on your knees.
O hear the angel voices.
O night divine.
The night when Christ was born.”
The simple, humble message of inclusion and equality, compassion and perseverance, slowly spreading around the world, changing people’s outlooks, encouraging people to hold out their hands and join in on the quiet revolution.
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.