Story of Carol 'O Holy Night'

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O Holy Night is a well-known Christmas carol with amazing power to lift soul and bring tears to the eyes, send chills up and down the spine, and bring Christian believers to their knees or to their feet with applause, the song was the result of a joint effort between two men who, by some standards may not be considered Christian, or even religious. The words were written by a French poet, Placide Cappeau [October 25, 1808 – August 8, 1877], and the music was composed by Adolphe Charles Adam [24 July 1803 – 3 May 1856] a French composer and music critic.

In 1847 a commissioner of wine in France, Mr. Placide Cappeau, was asked by his parish priest to write a poem for the Christmas Eve service. Initially, Cappeau was not certain he’d be able to live up to the task. But after reading the Gospel of Luke for inspiration, he envisioned what it might have been like to have been in Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus. On a hard carriage ride to Paris, the gentleman imagined himself a witness to the birth of Christ. The wonder of that glorious moment flowed through his pen, and he penned the now famous words "Cantique de Noel" or O Holy Night ("Song of Christmas).  Cappeau had the words, but now he needed the music to lift souls heavenward in song. 


Upon delivering the poem in Paris, Cappeau determined that “Cantique de Noel” would be even more powerful if set to music. For help, he turned to his friend, well known composer, Adolphe Charles Adams. It was an unusual request.  At first, Adams was reluctant to participate. Adams was a trained classical musician, but he was of the Jewish faith. As a Jew, the celebration of the Christian saviour did not appeal to him. Still, something about the words of the poem inspired him, he good naturedly received his friend's request and thus endeavoured to compose an original tune and score unlike anything that had been heard before for the poem.

O holy night English translation quickly became popular and found an audience in the American north during the American Civil War where it was celebrated as an anthem of freedom.

It only took Adams three weeks to complete the work; it was a perfect match and the song was performed for the congregation on Christmas Eve. The French people loved this amazing new hymn and it became a popular staple for choirs to sing at Christmas time and carol.

However, Cappeau eventually left the Catholic Church for the philosophy of socialism.  This information, combined with news that the music was written by a Jewish man, caused the Catholic hierarchy of France to ban the singing of “Cantique de Noel”, claiming it was too secular.  It baffles the mind how the worshipful lyrics to this song could ever be considered secular, but the church had spoken, and the song was no longer part of traditional services.

For love of the song, the French people did not let the song die and continued to embrace it' even if they had to sing it outside the official approval of the church. They continued to sing “Cantique de Noel” in their homes and in social gatherings.  O Holy Night had gone from a mainstream hymn to an underground hit.


Ten years later, an American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight, heard the carol and instantly loved its vibrant message of hope and the grand, soaring score, especially the verse that says "Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease."  He determined that American audiences had to hear it.  Dwight felt that the song was the perfect marriage between the Good News of the Gospel, and the freedom that Jesus represented. Dwight translated the lyrics of “Cantique de Noel” into English, renaming it “O Holy Night”, and published it in a magazine. His English translation quickly became popular and found an audience in the American north during the American Civil War where it was celebrated as an anthem of freedom.

He loved O Holy Night vibrant message of hope and the grand, soaring score, especially the verse that says "Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease."

Meanwhile, the song continued to be celebrated by the common man in France and various parts of Europe.  It is said that during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier jumped out of his trench in the middle of a fire fight, and sang three verses of “Cantique de Noel” while his fellow soldiers stared in amazement.  Upon completion of the song, a German soldier boldly emerged from hiding, approached the Frenchman and said, “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” which means “From Heaven above to Earth I come, to bring good news to everyone. Glad tidings of great joy I bring, of which I must both say and sing.”  The words are lifted from the old hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” which was penned by Martin Luther.  The legend states that for the next 24 hours, in honour of Christmas day, both sides ceased fighting.


Watch the Video Here: O Holy Night Video

Legend has it that the French Catholic Church finally received the song back into its worship services after an encounter between French and German troops during the Franco-Prussian War. From that time forward, “Cantique de Noel” and its English translation O Holy Night would become one of the most cherished hymns of Christmas around the world.


On Christmas Eve of that year, a 33-year-old university professor named Reginald Fessenden (a former colleague of Thomas Edison) was tinkering (experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph) in his office and proceeded to do something that had never been done before.  He broadcast a human voice across the airwaves.  Speaking into a microphone he’d rigged, Fessenden read Luke Chapter 2 from his Bible.  As he uttered the words, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” amazed radio operators on ships and over wireless code transmitters heard the Gospel being read through their speakers.  It was the first radio broadcast of a man's voice and it was the Gospel of Christ. Those who heard those first words over the radio recall that they thought they were witnessing a miracle.

O Holy Night is a song that has managed to unite common people across France, unite soldiers on the battlefield, and break ground as the first song ever to be broadcast through a medium that would eventually spread the Gospel all over the world.


Meanwhile, Fessenden had no idea who, if anyone, was hearing his broadcast.  After completing his reading from the Gospel of Luke, he picked up his violin, sat close to his microphone, and played the familiar music to O Holy Night – making it the first song to ever be played over the airwaves. 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 1847, when a poet in France penned his poem inspired by Luke’s Gospel, "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 ever created. O Holy Night is a song that has managed to unite common people across France, unite soldiers on the battlefield, and break ground as the first song ever to be broadcast through a medium that would eventually spread the Gospel all over the world.


THE FULL TEXT OF O HOLY NIGHT

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 Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wise men from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.

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

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.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!