O Holy Night: A Legendary Christmas Song with a Checkered Past

Its just not Christmas unless Ms Peggy rattles our small sanctuary windows at Rock Mtn, with Ms Sherry skillfully plucking the well-composed triplet pattern in accompaniment. Peggy is a gifted singer, and most often several ladies in the congregation reach for a Kleenex, especially towards the end when she absolutely brings it home on that really high note. You know the one.

O Holy Night has become a legendary Christmas song in many parts of the world. In the United States, many well-known vocalists have recorded it through the years, including Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Kari Jobe, Jackie Evancho, Luciano Pavarotti, Josh Groban, David Phelps, Sara Groves, Celion Dion, Martina McBride, Nat King Cole, Selah, Mariah Carey, Mercy Me, Susan Boyle, Clay Crosse, Jim Neighbors, Faith Hill, and many others.

One of the most recent (and in my opinion, most well-done) versions of the song comes from a cappella group, Eclipse 6:

So yeah, O Holy Night is legendary. That may be why people sort of conveniently forget about its past.

The song began its history in 1847 as a poem composed by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877) in Roquemaure, a town in France. Cappeau was a wine merchant and poet, but was known for his socialist views, his anticlerical views, and even for being an atheist. In spite of this, the local parish priest asked Cappeau to write the poem in order to celebrate the recent renovation of their church organ.

Cappeau agreed, and while traveling one day, considered the text of Luke 2, imagining himself there. He wrote the simple, yet magnificent poem that deeply contradicted his own views. Adolphe Adam was then commission to set the poem to music. Adam was a man of Jewish ancestry, which means he likely did not celebrate Christmas, nor was it likely he believed Jesus to be the Son of God. Three weeks after the music was composed, the song was performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

So here’s the joke: A Catholic priest, an atheist wine merchant, and a Jewish composer walk into a bar. When they exit, an international Christmas favorite comes into existence.

In France, the song grew quickly in popularity, until church leaders began learning the background of Cappeau and Adam. The heads of the French Catholic church then deemed the song unfit for church services. However, the French people continued singing it in their homes. It was an instant classic, and apparently the commoners, for the most part at least, were not concerned about the spiritual beliefs of the men who wrote it. I suppose in their eyes, O Holy Night was an objective piece of art that should be evaluated on its own merits, and not too strongly attached to its authors. The writers may not have believed the message of the song, perhaps they thought, but the message of the song was true nonetheless.

The song entered the United States via another questionable channel. John Sullivan Dwight was a Unitarian minister and transcendentalist, who’s beliefs would never be accepted in an average Evangelical church today (since Unitarians reject the doctrine of the Trinity). In 1855 it was Dwight who translated O Holy Night from French into English, and its popularity spread rapidly in the USA.

So, here is the joke: A Catholic Priest, an atheist wine merchant, a Jewish composer, and a Unitarian minister walk into a bar… Nevermind.

O Holy Night is also famous for being the first song ever broadcast through the radio waves, Christmas Eve, 1906.

So with all of this interesting history, what should Christians in 2014 do with O Holy Night? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion that we will continue singing the legend. Regardless of the beliefs held by the originators of the song, the lyrics and melody are some of the more powerful ever written. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth,” and “Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!” Peggy, warm those vocal chords up and rattle the windows.