Dr. Jeff Sanders begins his article entitled “The Story Behind ‘O Holy Night’” with the following words:
It’s a tough song to sing isn’t it? Also hard to play on the piano (so I’ve been told). But it is the “show stopper” at many Christmas cantatas. You just can’t help but get a thrill when you belt out the chorus “Fall on your knees. . ..” But the carol “O Holy Night” was actually banned by church leadership, and if it were not for the common people, the powerful song would have faded into obscurity.
“O Holy Night” (in French it is Cantique de Noël) was composed by French musician Adolphe Charles Adams in 1847 to the poem “Cantique de Noel” (“Song of Christmas”) that was written by a French wine merchant, poet, named Placide Cappeau. Cappeau had been asked by his parish priest to write a poem for the Christmas Eve service even though he had previously shown no interest in religion.
Agreeing to write such a song, he pondered the creation of this poem as he rode to Paris in his carriage. During the ride, he imagined himself a witness to the birth of Christ. The wonder of that glorious moment flowed through his pen, and he gave us the poem that became this carol. But he needed music and the music had to lift the hearts and souls heavenward in song.
Cappeau’s friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, was a trained classical musician who would be well-able to create the appropriate music to support the poem’s spirit, but he was of the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, Adams put his training to good use and composed the tune that fit the poem perfectly. It was, indeed, a perfect match and three weeks later the song was performed for the congregation on Christmas Eve.
While the people loved the carol, the French Catholic Church banned the song when it was discovered that the poet had abandoned the church and that the composer was not of the Christian faith.
However, the French people would not let the song die and they continued to sing it even if it had to be without the approval of the church.
When an American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight, heard the carol ten years later, he loved its message of hope. He, of course, focused on the verse that says, “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.”
Legend has it that the French Catholic Church received the song back into its worship services only after an encounter between French and German troops during the Franco-Prussian War. During a lull in fighting, a French soldier stood up without weapon in his hands or by his side and he began singing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans were so moved that they responded by singing one of Luther’s carols “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”. The “songfest” encouraged the soldiers to honor a truce for 24 hours on Christmas.
Moving the story to a bit more recent times, on Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden (a former colleague of Thomas Edison) was experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph. He began reading the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke chapter 2. Around the world, wireless operators on ships and at newspaper desks began to hear a man’s voice come out of their machines. It was the first radio broadcast of a man’s voice and the beginning of the radio era spreading the Gospel of Christ.
But then, Fessenden picked up a violin and began to play “O Holy Night.”
The song written by a wine merchant, set to music by a Jewish composer, banned by church leaders, kept alive by the French, adopted by American abolitionists, sung by troops in the trenches, was broadcast to the whole world by invisible radio waves, and is loved and sung still today.