What You May Not Know About ‘O Holy Night’

Every now and then throughout the year, O Holy Night is the song I love to hear more than any other. When I hear it or sing it, I feel transported back in time — the thrill of hope, as the song describes it, is palpable.

When Christmas rolls around, it’s the song I have on repeat. I love it. Especially when David Phelps performs it.

Interestingly, in case you’ve never heard the story, the author of the lyrics of this gem was no saint. 

The year was 1843. 

The place, Roquemaure — a small town in southern France. 

The organ restoration at the local Catholic church was finally complete. To celebrate, the parish priest commissioned the local wine merchant, Placide Cappeau — an atheist — to pen a poem for Christmas mass. 

A rather unusual choice to say the least, Cappeau had followed in his father’s footsteps as a wine merchant, but was also a student of literature, an artist, and a licensed attorney who lost his hand as a boy after sustaining a gunshot wound during an accident. Clearly, writing was his passion. 

Regardless his own lack of belief, he obliged, and penned the poem in a stagecoach on his way to Paris, using the Gospel account of the birth of Jesus in Luke 2 as his guide. By the time he arrived, Cantique de Noel (Song of Christmas) was complete — the beginning line: Minuit, Chrétien, c’est l’heure solennelle — Midnight, Christian, is the solemn hour. He was so moved by his own work, he sought the help of his friend Adolphe Adam — a world renowned french composer, teacher, and music critic — in setting the number to music. 

The request, however, was a tall order. Adam was Jewish.

It would take him four years to compose Cantique de Noel. Interestingly, Adam — credited with co-creating the French form of opera — played by ear. O Holy Night was one of a select few of his religious works to ever be published. 

Cantique de Noel premiered during Christmas mass in Roquemaure on December 24, 1847, performed by opera singer Emily Laurey.

It was an instant success, and became a favorite of churches all over France. Shortly thereafter, things drastically changed when Church leaders learned the author of the lyrics was a socialist, and the composer, a jew. They determined the song unfit because of its “total absence of the spirit of religion” and banned it from further use. 

Over the next decade, however, the song was a favorite of French citizens, who continued to sing it at home. In 1855, American writer John Dwight discovered it, and set about translating the carol into English. A passionate abolitionist, Dwight was particularly moved by the second verse.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains He shall break
For the slave is our brother
And in His Name
All oppression shall cease…

Over the next few years, the carol would become an American favorite, particularly in the North, during the Civil War. 

Many stories have since been told of the miraculous effect the carol had during times of war — when a bold soldier belted out the number on Christmas Eve 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War causing a 24-hour cease fire — and during peace, on Christmas Eve in 1906, when a university professor broadcast the song over the airwaves for the first time in history. 

From the time O Holy Night was first shared as a poem at a Christmas mass in a little town in southern France until now, God has used a Christmas carol written by someone who didn’t believe in Jesus, to touch the hearts of untold millions. 

Don’t ever think God can’t use you to change the world!

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