Songs of Christmas…O Holy Night


This is part 24 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

I saved “O Holy Night” for Christmas Eve for a very special reason, at least its a special reason to me. Many of us would place this hymn  on Christmas Eve because it speaks so powerfully to the events that take place in the second chapter of Luke. But, many of the carols we talked about in this series have done that. “Mary Did You Know” is one that springs quickly to mind. Because it is a particular favorite of mine, I thought about using it today.

I changed my mind when I thought of a very special person to me, whose birthday is today. “O Holy Night” is not only my mother’s favorite carol, it is her favorite hymn. So I write this today as a part of my birthday gift to my mom. Happy birthday Mom.

Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was a poet in France and the Commissioner of Wines in the small French town in which he made his home. Not much of a church attender, Cappeau was more than a little surprised when his parish priest commissioned him to write a poem to use at Christmas Eve Mass in 1847.

As Cappeau was riding in a carriage in route to the capital, he was thinking about his task. The poem needed to be religious, of course and it also needed to be about Christmas, the birth of Jesus. By the end of his “Cantique de Noel” was complete.

To say that Cappeau loved his creation would be an understatement. He was moved by what he had written. He believed it needed to be more than a poem but a song. Cappeau was a poet, not a musician. He went and found his friend Adolphe Charles Adams.

Adams was a well known classical musician and composer. He had written both one act operas and ballets. He had become in demand in much of the world. Yet he was intrigued by “Cantique de Noel” and began to write. The tune he created was accepted by both the poet and the priest. Three weeks later the song made its debut at Christmas Eve Mass.

Initially the song gained wide acceptance. It found its way into many Christmas services throughout France. Then two things happened that reversed the song’s fortunes, at least for a time. First, Cappeau walked away from the Church and embraced socialism. Second, was the discovery that Adams was a Jew. He wrote the beautiful tune having no real knowledge of the holiday or the Savior it celebrated.

The carol was banned by the Church in France. But, as we have talked about over the past couple of days, the common Christian folks in France loved the song and continued to sing it regardless of what the Church had to say about it.

Mean while, “across the pond,” song writer John Sullivan Dwight not only discovered “Cantique de Noel” but truly believed it needed its introduction to the American audience. At the same time, the young abolitionist saw a kindred spirit in the words saying, “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.” With his translation, and a new English name, “O Holy Night” quickly gained acceptance in the United States, particularly in the North.

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and began to sing.

When the Frenchman finished, a German infantryman climbed out his hiding place and answered with, the beginning of Martin Luther’s “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The legend goes on to say that a 24 hour cease fire followed. It could be that this story had something to do with the French Church once again accepting the beloved carol.

In 1906 Reginald Fessenden stepped to a microphone on Christmas Eve and began to read the Christmas story from Luke 2. When he completed the reading he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night.” Radio operators ran for their wireless sets and listened in amazement as something new was happening. Where once there had only been code now came out in voice and “O Holy Night” was part of the word’s first radio broadcast.

The Church in France tried to kill the song. It seems clear to me that the song took on a life of its own because it was of God, and God would not let it die. When have you seen God work to keep something significant alive?

Have a blessed Christmas Eve.

Joy and Peace,

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.



Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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