Thoughts on “O Holy Night”

By | December 31, 2015

Of all Christmas carols, “O Holy Night” has one of the most fascinating stories. It is a rather unlikely carol in that the poem was written by an avowed atheist (albeit one well-versed in Christian theology) and the tune composed by a practicing Jew who did not observe Christmas. It was first sung by a Parisian opera singer, but soon after church officials banned the song when it was discovered that the poet had left the church. Nevertheless, the song became so popular that on Christmas Eve of 1906 it was the first song ever to be broadcast on the radio. To this day it remains one of the most popular of all Christmas carols.

Organ in RoquemaureTo make a long story short, the carol comes from the wine country of southern France. At the end 1843, the renovation of the pipe organ in St. John the Baptist Church of Roquemaure was completed.1 The priest asked Placide Cappeau (1808-77), a wine merchant and famous poet who had grown up in Roquemaure, to write a Christmas poem to commemorate the occasion. While traveling to Paris on a stagecoach one day, Cappeau wrote a poem entitled “Minuit Chrétien” (“Midnight, Christians”). The standard English translation was published in 1855 by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-93), a Unitarian minister whose translation waters down some of the theology in the original poem.

Below is a literal translation of Cappeau’s original text. A careful comparison of the Dwight’s metrical translation and the literal translation will reveal that the original poem has a more unified progression of thought and a deeper theological message.

Placide Cappeau

Placide Cappeau (1808-77)

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour
when God as man descended among us
to erase the stain of original sin
and to put an end to His Father’s wrath.
The entire world trembles with hope (excitement)
on this night that gives us a Savior.

People, kneel in anticipation of your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

The intense light of our faith,
guides us all to the birthplace of the child
as once a star shining there
led the Wise Men from the East.
The King of kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your grandeur,

it is from there that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken all barriers:
the earth is free and the sky is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave;
love unites those who have been placed in iron chains.
Who will tell him our gratitude?
It is for us all that He was born, suffered, and died.

Rise people! Sing of your deliverance!
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

Emily Laurey

Emily Laurey

Living in Roquemaure in 1843 was Pierre Laurey, an engineer from Paris who was completing a bridge near the town. His wife Emily, an up-and-coming opera singer, stayed with him for a time. She was an acquaintance of Cappeau and learned of the poet’s new poem.  She was so impressed with it that she asked if she could have her friend, opera and ballet composer Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803-1856), set it to music. Upon returning to Paris, Emily contacted Adam and within three weeks he had composed the music that is still sung today. Emily was planning to return to Roquemaure that Christmas Eve to sing it, but complications with her pregnancy prevented her from doing so. In fact, it was not until the Christmas of 1847 that she was finally able to premiere the work.

Adolphe Adam

Adolphe Adam (1802-56)

 

For the full story with lots of pictures, see A Marvelous Mess Resulting in Beauty: The Strange and Fascinating Story Behind “O Holy Night”. For more on the ban, see The Story Behind “O Holy Night”.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas! May we all boldly “sing of the Redeemer” in the New Year!

  1. Roquemaure is a town seven to eight miles north of Avignon.

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