I used Ace Collins’ book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan Publishing, 2001, for the story behind O Holy Night.
Christmas is, still today, a mostly Christian holiday. I know that seems that is become less and less with each passing year – just last week I read an article about a school in Waterbury, Conn. that has reportedly banned all religious festivities and many decorations from their classrooms.
It’s even in the name – Christmas! That being the case, it is a bit surprising that one of the most beautiful songs of the Christmas season – O Holy Night – was written by a wine commissioner in France known for not attending church and composed by a man of Jewish descent who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
In 1847, the parish priest of the town where Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was wine commissioner asked him to write a poem that would be read at the Christmas mass. Knowing this, he knew it would have to be religious, focus on Christmas, and be based on Scripture. Using Luke 2 and Matthew 2 has his guide, he imagined himself present at the birth of Jesus. Traveling from his small town to Paris, he completed the poem by the time he reached the big city.
But he realized that this was more than just a poem, it was a song in need of a tune. So he asked his friend, a well-known (at the time) opera composer – Adolphe Charles Adams – to compose a tune. Reading the words, he realized that this poem was about a holiday he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the Son of God. But moved by friendship, he went to work and completed the tune in a short time.
The result is a song that went on to have an interesting history. At first it was embraced by the French people and the French Church. But later, it was discovered that Adophe Charles Adams was a Jew and an atheist to boot. The heads of the French Catholic Church at that time deemed the song as unfit for church serves – citing that it lacked musical taste and a total absence of the spirit of religion! Even though officially banned by the Church, the people continued to sing it.
It was about this time that the song traveled to America – bitterly divided between North and South and quickly heading to Civil War. A Unitarian minister – of all people (The Unitarian Church does not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ) – was given a copy of the French carol, translated it and published it. He was drawn to its message of freedom – especially in the lines, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” This minister – John Sullivan Dwight – was an ardent abolitionist and knew that the message of Christ coming to free all men was one of the most important messages that the people of the United States needed to hear at this pivotal time in our history.
There are two more interesting items of this songs history that show the impact it has on people. Back in France, in the 1870’s during their war with Prussia, a story began to circulate that on Christmas Eve in 1871, a soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench and, with both sides look at this crazed man, he boldly stood with no weapon and began to see at the top of his lungs, “O Holy Night.” In response, a German soldier jumped out of his trench and began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The story went on to say that the fighting stopped for the next 24 hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day.
The other story takes place in 1906. It was the early dawn of radio and Reginald Fessenden – a former chief chemist for Thomas Edison – using a new type of generator spoke into a microphone and for the first time in history, a human voice was broadcast over wireless radio. He began by reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 and then he picked up a violin and played “O Holy Night.” Thus, this song became the first music heard over radio in the history of the world.
This song and its story illustrate the truth that the message it gives is not to be kept to one’s self. It is to be shared with all the world. And even though Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, he came for all people – as the visit of the Magi illustrates. The salvation that Jesus brings is for all people held in the slavery of sin. Jesus frees us from our bonds and gives us life through His life, death, and resurrection. That Holy Night long ago is to be celebrated and shared with all the world!