“O Holy Night” is a beautiful Christmas carol that originates from 19th century France. In France, it is known as “Cantique de Noël”.
Reports on the history of the creation of the carol are conflicting. The following is one of the most popular explanations. The original French words were written in 1847 (some resources say 1843) by the French amateur poet Placide Cappeau (a resident of Roquemaure, France), who was apparently asked by his local priest to write a poem for Christmas mass. For inspiration, Cappeau used the gospel of Luke to help him imagine the scene of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. He wrote his poem about this over the course of several days and named it “Minuit, Chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians). Cappeau was so pleased with his poem that he decided to ask his composer friend Adolphe Charles Adam to write some music for it. Adam’s musical composition for the poem pleased both Cappeau and the priest, and the song was named “Cantique de Noël” (Canticle of Christmas). It was performed three weeks later at midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
“Cantique de Noël” was initially warmly welcomed by the French clergy. The song was rapidly incorporated as a Christmas carol into various Catholic Christmas services. However, the combination of Cappeau walking away from the church and becoming a part of the socialist movement, and the discovery that Adam was a Jew (he may not have been), resulted in the church suddenly denouncing the carol. They claimed that it was unfit for church services, due to its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion”. Despite the clergy trying to abolish the carol, the French public continued to sing it.
In 1855, the carol was translated to and published in English by American Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music. He named the carol “O Holy Night”. Both Cappeau and Dwight held strong anti-slavery views and this is evident in the third verses of both the French and English lyrics (see below for the English lyrics). The carol rapidly became popular in America, especially in the North during the Civil War, probably due to the relevant lyrics of the third verse.
Back in France, “Cantique de Noël” was still popular, despite it having been banned by the church almost twenty years earlier. It has been said, but not proven, that on Christmas Eve 1870, in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly sprang up from his trench and sang “Cantique de Noël.” In response, a German infantryman climbed out of his hiding place and sang Martin Luther’s carol “Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her’” (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come). Apparently, the soldiers of both sides stopped flighting for the next twenty-four hours in honour of Christmas day. This touching story is suspected to have played a part in the French church once again welcoming the carol “Cantique de Noël”.
The final noteworthy event in the history of “O Holy Night” took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. In Ocean Bluff-Brant Rock, Massachusetts, Reginald Fessenden, a university professor and former chemist for Thomas Edison, did something that had long been thought impossible. Fessenden used a new type of transmitter to conduct the first radio program broadcast. His broadcast included Handel’s “Largo”, which was played on an Ediphone phonograph, and “O Holy Night”, which he personally played on his violin (he sang along to the last verse as he played). He also read some passages from the Bible. “O Holy Night” is therefore one of the first pieces of music to have ever been sent through the air via radio waves.
“O Holy Night/Cantique de Noël” is now an extremely popular Christmas carol. It has been sung by many world-famous celebrities, including Celine Dion, Luciano Pavarotti, Il Divo, and Mariah Carey. It was also sung beautifully by a choir in the 1990 Christmas movie Home Alone. Click the Amazon box below for samples of these and several other beautiful versions of the song.
The English lyrics, as written by Dwight, are as follows:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels’ voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night divine.
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Behold your King.
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.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
Several other, more literal English translations of the original French text, can be found, but Dwight’s wording remains the most popular today.