A Brief History
On December 25, 2020, people around the world celebrate the Christian holiday of Christmas, honoring the birth of Jesus Christ. During this Christmas season, we are likely to hear many Christmas carols and holiday songs, but none of them are arguably as touching and universal as “O Holy Night,” also known as “Cantique de Noël” in the original French. We take this opportunity to reflect on the song that, in our opinion, is the greatest Christmas carol.
While the famous carol is of course, Christian, the backgrounds of the men involved in creating the song as we know it span a range of beliefs. For starters, the author of the poem “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians) that gave rise to the carol has been described as an anti-clerical, secular person, and even an avowed atheist! Placide Cappeau of Roquemaure, France wrote the poem in 1843 at the behest of the local parish priest who was elated that the church organ had been repaired. The music was composed by another Frenchman, Adolphe Adam, hence the frequent reference to the carol by the French name, “Cantique de Noël.” Adam was a composer of operas and ballets and was known as a music critic. As with many musical geniuses, Adam preferred to improvise his own adaptations of music instead of studying the work put before him as a schoolboy studying music. Adam even worked composing music for vaudeville prior to settling into a more conventional role as a composer of more serious music. Adam referred to the musical adaptation of Cappeau’s poem as “la Marseillaise religieuse” (the religious Marseillaise). Adam has been alleged to have Jewish roots. The parish priest that approached Cappeau with a request to write a poem in honor of the local church’s organ being repaired was of course Catholic. Although the Catholic Church originally banned the carol from being sung by Catholics in church because of the non-Catholic backgrounds of the men that produced it, the song was eventually premiered in Roquemaure in 1847, performed by a female opera singer named Emily Laurey. We were unable to determine her religious leanings.
Thankfully for English-speaking people, the song was translated into English by an American music critic and writer, the Reverend John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian cleric, completing the mixed religious bag that produced this great Christmas classic. The translation of the French version to English in a literal sense is not the song English speaking people usually hear, as the literal translation is somewhat different. Still, the wonderful tune is the same and the English words strike us as perfectly fine for the carol. After all, the English lyric “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease” describe the anti-slavery or abolitionist views of the interpreter, lending yet another layer of hopeful nuance to the song. About ten years after Dwight’s translation, slavery would be abolished in the United States of America following the conclusion of the American Civil War.
A story concerning the power of “Cantique de Noël” amidst another conflict concerns the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve, 1870, as German and French troops faced each other across the battle line, a lone Frenchman reportedly stood up in full view of the Germans, risking immediate death, and began singing the great carol! Both sides of the fighting lines broke out into a great chorus of Christmas cheer, singing the sweet carol and other Christmas songs. Even if the event actually happened and the story is not apocryphal, the war went on, although perhaps after this brief Christmas peace.
Later, on Christmas Eve of 1906, “O Holy Night” became the first song ever broadcast to the public on radio! Previous radio transmissions were not actual audio such as voice or music but were Morse code messages. The man who developed radio for music/vocal transmission was Canadian Reginald Fessenden. He played the song on the violin for his 1906 radio broadcast.
Since that magical day when our favorite carol made its debut, untold throngs of singers have belted out its sweet refrains, from pop star Avril Lavigne to Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebø and every professional and amateur singer in between! Notable modern singers of this carol that may be familiar to you include Josh Groban, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and country music star Martina McBride.
Such is the power of a song that captures human accomplishment and bringing people together more so than just being a religious song. It has the obvious anti-slavery line and in fact it was composed in France in 1847 and France abolished slavery the next year (1848). It was written by men, but first publicly performed by a woman. Its journey from poem to song to English translation occurred with people of different religious beliefs/backgrounds. The sort of “Christmas truce” moment in the Franco-Prussian War shows that people on both sides of a conflict can still share similar traits. Being played on the radio for the first time showcases man’s technological achievement (radio) alongside man’s artistic achievements with the song. That this song from the mid-1800s is still popular today in various languages around the world over 170 years later is a testament of enduring relevance. The story of this song is thus one of hope, that we can come together regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religious backgrounds to better mankind socially, technologically, and artistically. Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite Christmas carol or song? Is there any one in particular that you find inspiring and hopeful? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
I also encourage you to check out Patricia Hammond’s channel on YouTube for her full performances of this Christmas classic and of numerous other historical songs.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Adam, Adolphe. The Complete O Holy Night: Keyboard/Vocal. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1993.
Fox, Dan. World’s Greatest Christmas Songs: 65 of the World’s Most Popular and Best Loved Traditional and Contemporary Christmas Songs. Alfred Music, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a frontispiece to the original score of “Minuit, chrétiens,” is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymous. This applies to the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of 70 years after the work was made available to the public and the author never disclosed their identity.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.