You have no doubt heard the beloved Christmas song, O Holy Night, which is played and sung around the world, beautifully proclaiming the night our Savior was born in a manger in Bethlehem! But, when I searched more deeply into the origins of this beloved carol, I was somewhat surprised by what I found.
Here is how the story goes: A parish priest in a small town in France commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Placide Cappeau read the account of Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Luke one night while traveling to Paris, and finished the poem “O Holy Night” by the time he reached the city. He asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adam, to compose the music for his poem, and three weeks later, the beautiful song was sung for the first time in the village on Christmas Eve 1847.
Initially, Cantique de Noel, the song’s French name, was widely sung and loved by the Church in France, but when some of the leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist, and the musical composer, Adam, was a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services. But, as is the case so often with truly great music, the common French people loved the song and continued to sing it!
The song came to the United States via John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War, who translated it from French into English in 1858. He was greatly moved by the line in the third verse:
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;
and in His Name all oppression shall cease….
Dwight published the words of the song in his magazine and quickly found favor with the people in the North during the war.
Even though the song was banned in France, it was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve, 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked onto the battlefield, and started singing the song’s first line in French. After he had sung all three verses, a German soldier emerged and started singing, “Von Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her….”, the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.
Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day! Soon afterward, the French Church re-embraced the beloved song, Cantique de Noel, known to us in this country as O Holy Night. It continues to be sung around the world and will no doubt remain on the list of most beloved Christmas songs! I believe wherever this song is sung, a quiet, reverent atmosphere of praise and worship to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is created.
I love to play this song each Christmas and have combined it with the Italian carol, Gesu Bambino, in this live performance I did in Utah at Canyons Church a few years ago. I hope you will enjoy this and worship the King of Kings with me!
(For more of my music videos, including this one, please visit my You Tube channel, Rebecca Baker Bafford).