O Holy Night

One of the most cherished Christmas songs we sing each year is “O Holy Night”. It has an interesting history. In 1847, in a French village, the local priest asked the local wine commissioner, Placide Cappeau, a not-very-religious man, to write a poem for Christmas mass. It has been lost to history why the priest asked this man except for he had a reputation as a good poet.

In writing the poem, the poet opened to the book of Luke and put himself into the wonder of that night. He imagined all the emotions and miracles he might have seen. His poem “Cantique De Noel” was penned which was the basis for the song, “O Holy Night”. He asked a highly educated musician friend, Adolphe Adam, to write the accompanying music. Interestingly, the musician was a Jew who did not celebrate Christmas or think Jesus was God. The song was performed at Christmas mass and the French village immediately embraced it. However, years later upon discovering the lyricist was a worldly man (now a well-known socialist) and that the composer was a Jew, the church banned the beloved Christmas song. Parishioners continued to sing it in their own homes behind closed doors.

In 1855, in America, John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into English and made some modifications which became essentially the song we love to sing today. A fiery abolitionist, Dwight fell in love with the song, especially the message of freedom. The song was embraced by a nation going to Civil War, particularly in the North.

During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, during a lull in the fighting, a French soldier stood up from his muddy trench with no weapon in hand and began singing “Cantique de Noel”. Upon hearing the beautiful rendering, the German soldiers were so moved, they began singing as well. Both sides lifted their voice in song, alternating between French carols and the hymns of Martin Luther. A Christmas truce of sorts had been declared. This was surprisingly similar to how “Silent Night” accomplished the same thing with the soldiers in the trenches during World War I as described in a previous article in this publication on that song.

On Christmas Eve in 1906, Reginald Fessenden was experimenting with combining the telegraph with a crude kind of microphone. Fessenden began reading the account of Jesus’ birth from Luke chapter two. Radio operators aboard ships and wireless devices around the nation were shocked to hear, not the normal coded impulses that peppered their speakers, but a man’s voice reading the Christmas story. It was the very first radio broadcast…a man speaking the Word of God to an astounded audience. Upon finishing his reading, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night”, not only marking the moment as the first broadcast of a man’s voice, but the first song ever to be played over airwaves.

As we celebrate this Christmas season let us remember the Savior’s birth and that Christ is the Lord over all! “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!”

3 thoughts on “O Holy Night

  1. Larry, thank you for this post. It was fascinating. I will never cease to wonder how God makes His glory known by writing with the finger of the Spirit on human hearts when He finds a pliable tablet. Merry Christmas to you and yours!


  2. What an incredible historical background this song had. I missed this post until tonight. Thanks for an encouraging reminder of the power of the Saviors message.


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