O Holy Night

My favorite Christmas song has always been O Holy Night. Throughout all the holiday traditions and giftings and carols and rhythms, this song stands out. I think it breaks through the monotony of the carols we sing because it actually says something important. While the dubious “little drummer boy” and the Carol of the Bells are festive and entertaining, O Holy Night tackles issues such as slavery, sin, holy worth, incarnation, and redemption. Something about this song makes you feel a part of something bigger, something more compelling, something that matters. Perhaps its the command to “fall on your knees!”, but this song demands a seriousness that we often do not associate with Christmas celebrations.

This year, I wanted to look more deeply into this Christmas song, so I have dug into its history. What I found is surprising and beautiful.

The song, O Holy Night, was written as a poem (originally called Midnight, Christians) by a French wine dealer named Placide Cappeau and then was put to music by Adolphe Charles Adams. Interestingly enough, Cappeau was known to be an atheist and Adams was Jewish. From the sources I have found, neither believed in Christ, but for whatever reason were compelled to bring this song to the French population. Years later, the song was banned from churches in France when Cappeau joined the socialist movement and it was discovered that Adolphe was a Jew. Despite the harsh critiques of the French catholic church such as the song “being totally devoid of the spirit of religion!”, the French people continued to belt this beloved Christmas song out.

O Holy Night then found its way to America a few years later because of a man named John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight was an abolitionist and found the song to be a compelling battle cry for the emancipation of slaves in America.

With that history in view, let me tell you the first thing that stood out to me when I saw the date this song was written.

O Holy Night, or Midnight Christians, was penned in 1847. Think about what was happening the world in 1847. France was on the verge of another revolution[1], slavery was still legal in America, women would not get the right to vote for another fifty to a hundred years. Think about the words of this song being sung in such a climate:

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother...
— [2]

Think about all the tensions - between old and new thought, between supporters of slavery and abolitionists, between a type of religion that did not support the most basic of civil rights and the progressive Christians of that time. These words and this song were truly revolutionary.

The words of the original French poem by Cappeau were also quite different from our contemporary version brought to us by John Sullivan Dwight and includes lines such as:

O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.

and

The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
— [3]

As early as 1847, before our countries and our general populations had made legal the rights that should never have been taken away, people were singing these words. To the elite and those taking advantage of the poor: “O mighty ones of today….it is to your pride that God preaches”. To those that held slaves: “He sees a brother where there was only a slave, love unites those that iron had chained.” This is more than a Christmas song, it is an anthem.

O Holy Night calls out the most insurgent and radical messages of our faith - the teaches of God incarnate that call for equality, for mercy, for justice, and for grace. When we sing this song, we are not merely declaring that Christ came and will come again, we are declaring what Christ has done - how He has brought worth to our souls, given us hope and a law of love, brought peace, called for an end to oppression, and broken chains of bondage. And it all started with a night divine.[4]

Merry Christmas.


For your reference, the entire original poem composed by Placide Cappeau:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,

When God as man descended unto us

To erase the stain of original sin

And to end the wrath of His Father.

The entire world thrills with hope

On this night that gives it a Saviour.

People, kneel down, await your deliverance.

Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith

Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,

As in ancient times a brilliant star

Guided the Oriental kings there.

The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;

O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,

It is to your pride that God preaches.

Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:

The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.

He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

Love unites those that iron had chained.

Who will tell Him of our gratitude,

For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
— Placide Cappeau

[1] French Revolution of 1848

[2] Oh Holy Night, John Dwight Sullivan.

[3] Original poem written by Placide Cappeau called Midnight, Christians

[4] References for this article come from: http://extraordinaryintelligence.com/true-story-of-o-holy-night/, http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/The-Nativity-Story/The-Amazing-Story-Of-O-Holy-Night.aspx, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night