The Amazing Story of 'O Holy
By Ace Collins
Declared 'unfit for church services' in France and later embraced
by U.S. abolitionists, the song continues to inspire.
The strange and fascinating story of "O Holy Night" began
in France, yet eventually made its way around the world. This seemingly
simple song, inspired by a request from a clergyman, would not only
become one of the most beloved anthems of all time, it would mark a
technological revolution that would forever change the way people were
introduced to music.
In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissionaire of
wines in a small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church
attendance, it probably shocked Placide when his parish priest asked the
commissionaire to pen a poem for Christmas mass. Nevertheless, the poet
was honored to share his talents with the church.
In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France's capital
city, Placide Cappeau considered the priest's request. 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
Moved by his own work, 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.
As a man of Jewish ancestry, 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, 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
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. The heads of
the French Catholic church of the time deemed "Cantique de
Noel" as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical
taste and "total absence of the spirit of religion." 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 song 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: "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."
The text supported Dwight's own view of slavery in the South. Published
in his magazine, Dwight's English translation of "O Holy
Night" quickly found favor in America, especially in the North
during the Civil War.
Back in France, even though the song had been banned from the church
for almost two decades, many commoners still sang "Cantique de
Noel" at home. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the
midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France,
during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of
his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly
standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes
to the heavens and sang, "Minuit, Chretiens, c'est l'heure
solennelle ou L'Homme Dieu descendit jusqu'a nous," the beginning
of "Cantique de Noel."
After completing all three verses, a German infantryman climbed out
his hiding place and answered with, "Vom Himmel noch, da komm' ich
her. Ich bring' euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring' ich so viel,
Davon ich sing'n und sagen will," the beginning of Martin Luther's
robust "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come."
The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty-four
hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of
Christmas day. Perhaps this story had a part in the French church once
again embracing "Cantique de Noel" in holiday services.
Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old
men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden--a 33-year-old
university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison--did
something long thought 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: "And it came to pass
in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that
all the world should be taxed," he began in a clear, strong voice,
hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.
Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at
newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over
tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel
of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like
a miracle--hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some
might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.
Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on
ships and in offices; he couldn't have known that men and women were
rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle.
After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked
up his violin and played "O Holy Night," the first song ever
sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the
broadcast--but not before music had found a new medium that would take
it around the world.
Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, "O
Holy Night" has been sung millions of times in churches in every
corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first
heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of
the entertainment industry's most recorded and played spiritual songs.
This incredible work--requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by
a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a
Jewish composer, and brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to
spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of
a Savior--has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music
Reprinted from "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of
Christmas" for educational purposes only, from Zondervan.
O Holy Night