O Holy Night: The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Song

By T Ford  


A few weeks ago, in an unofficial and very unscientific survey of several of my friends, I asked each participant to name his/her favorite Christmas song. Silent NightLittle Drummer Boy, and White Christmas were all on the short list, but the overwhelmng favorite was O Holy Night. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings of the song to choose from, so whether you prefer Celine Dion’s version, or you’d rather hear the musical stylings of John Berry (my favorite), Nat King ColeJosh GrobanAretha FranklinCarrie Underwood, or Lauren Daigle, there’s no excuse for not listening to the song at least once this Christmas season. There’s even a version by Alvin and the Chipmunks (shudder).


The lyrics (provided at the end of this article) are, no doubt, familiar to you, but if you’re unfamiliar with the back story of the song, as I was, here’s the history, summarized from “The Amazing Story of ‘O Holy Night.’” 


In 1847, a French wine dealer by the name of Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was asked by his parish priest to write a poem for Christmas mass. As he traveled by coach to Paris, Cappeau wrote his poem, using the gospel of Luke as a guide. By the time he arrived at the capital city, he had completed “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to be set to music, so he asked his friend, a fairly well-known composer named Adolphe Charles Adams, to write the music. Both Cappeau as well as the priest who had commissioned the poem were pleased with the final composition, and it was performed three weeks later at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.


Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was quite popular and it made its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But then Placide Cappeau left the church and joined the socialist movement, and church leaders also discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew. Suddenly, the beloved song was denounced by the church as being unfit for church services because of its “total absence of the spirit of religion.” But those wily French folks continued to sing the song, even though it remained banned by the Church for almost two decades.


A few years after Cappeau penned “Cantique de Noel,” American Unitarian minister, transcendentalist, and music critic John Sullivan Dwight introduced the song on our side of the pond. Dwight was an abolitionist, and beyond the story of the birth of Christ, the lines of the third verse supported his view of slavery in the South:


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.”


Dwight published his English translation in 1855 and it quickly became popular in America, particularly in the North.


But that’s not the end of the amazing story. Decades later, on Christmas Eve 1906, a 33-year-old university professor (and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison) by the name of Reginald Fessenden did the seemingly impossible—using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone, and for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves! What was the content of this first transmission? First, Fessenden read the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke, and then he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” making it the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves! Now that’s amazing!


O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn;


Chorus

Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy 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 Orient land,
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our friend;


Chorus

He knows our need, To our weakness no stranger!
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King! your King! before him 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!


Chorus

Christ is the Lord, then ever! ever praise we!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!


From the Ford family to your family, we wish you a joyful Christmas!


By T Ford at American Free News Network


Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “O Holy Night: The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Song”

  1. Why do you think it is almost impossible to hear anyone record the 2nd or 3rd verses? They usually sing the first verse twice! I suspect it is the anti slavery, socialist message, which is exactly what Jesus taught…do unto the least of my brothers, etc…not build big expensive buildings and starve our brothers and sisters. Right? Why wouldn’t a follower of jesus want EVERYONE to have health care? A good education? Safe drinking water? I am soooooo confused by American Christianity.

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