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.