Introduction—A Personal Note
Back in 2005 I preached an Advent series at Fleetwood Bible Church on the rich theology behind Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Those messages were well received, and quite a few people have since asked me to consider unpacking another Christmas carol during the Advent season. So this year I’ve decided to speak on the story behind—and the theology of—“O Holy Night,” which is another favorite that we sing on Christmas Eve.
When it comes to Incarnation theology, nothing compares to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s an intellectual tour de force, and I marvel at how Wesley was able to capture so much Christian truth in a single hymn. But when it comes to sheer emotion, few carols can compete with “O Holy Night.” The beloved “Silent Night” is certainly up there with it, but little else from the Christmas repertoire can capture the heart to such an extent. The soft piano and organ accompaniment, supplemented by a decorating guitar and flute in the first half of the verse, gives way to a crescendoing brass ensemble in the second half of the verse. That’s when “O Holy Night” can bring tears to the eyes, send chills down the spine, and put believers on their knees in praise and worship. It’s that effective an arrangement.
And for me, personally, “O Holy Night” is doubly emotional because it happened to be my mother’s favorite hymn. When it came time for Cherie Valentino to pass from this life in 2005, her family was gathered around her hospital bed singing this very song. In fact, all her medical equipment “flat-lined” right as we were singing the words, “O hear the angel voices.” She died, and then she did—she did hear the angel voices that very moment, as she left our presence with an abiding faith in Christ. It was a deep and precious sorrow for all of us who were there. So every time we sing “O Holy Night,” we think of mom as well as Jesus.
So it’s all I can do to “keep it together” on Christmas Eve when we sing this carol together as a church family. Throughout the month of December, I usually play through it on the piano at least a dozen times just to get acclimated to the memories again. It deeply touches my heart.
And yet, for all that, “O Holy Night,” as we have it today, was the result of a joint effort among individuals who would not, by any standard, be considered orthodox Christians. And if you asked me to describe the story behind the hymn in a single phrase, I’d have to call it “a muddled mess resulting in beauty.” Why? Let’s take a look at the circumstances behind the hymn.
The Original Commission
The story begins with a man by the name of Joseph-Marie (or “Maurice”) Gilles (ca. 1780-1846). Gilles was appointed in 1820 as the priest of St. John the Baptist Church in Roquemaure, France. Roquemaure is a small but illustrious town located in southern France, and its population in the early 1800s was about 4,000—roughly the size of our borough, Fleetwood, Pennsylvania.
The area was well known for the creation and distribution of fine wines. It was also the site of a famous castle during the medieval period, but after the French Revolution, the castle was dismantled, and now only two towers remain. The parish where Father Gilles served contains relics from St. Valentine, so the church has a long and vaunted history.
One of the first things Father Gilles did was to replace the wood ceiling of the sanctuary with a lofty masonry vault. He also made other improvements to the physical structure and the church grounds. Shortly after Gilles began his tenure, the church received an organ that had been built in 1690, but because the church was focused on improving its facilities, it remained in a state of disrepair for about two decades.
In 1843 the bishop of the region visited Roquemaure, and he encouraged the church to have the instrument restored. He told Gilles: “It is a moral duty not to have languish any longer a precious object of such great value.” So, restoration of the organ began in early 1843, and the walnut casing seen here dates to that time.
The Original Lyrics
Father Gilles knew a local poet by the name of Placide Cappeau (1808-1877). The priest asked Cappeau to compose a poem to help celebrate the restoration of the organ, which was due to be finished that December.
When Cappeau was just eight years old, he had his hand surgically amputated after a tragic gun accident. A friend of his accidentally shot him while they were playing together. One can see in his adult portrait that he’s missing his right hand.
In spite of his disability, Cappeau went on to win awards as an artist and a journalist. The father of the boy who shot him, Monsieur Brignon, helped pay for the Cappeau children’s education. So Cappeau went off and studied law, and then followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a seller of wines and spirits.
In the mid 1800s, Cappeau came back to his hometown and served as the Commissioner of Wines in Roquemaure. He was known around town more for his poetry than his piety. In fact, he was an outspoken socialist and eventually became a skeptic and a full-blown secularist. He literally and spiritually walked away from the church. Father Gilles’ request may have been an attempt to get Cappeau to start thinking about Christ and his Incarnation again, perhaps in an attempt to win him back to the church.
Be that as it may, Cappeau accepted the church’s commission, and he used his flair for words to write a poem for Father Gilles. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He even incorporated into the lyrics some of the Christian theology that he himself had long since rejected.
One day while traveling to Paris by stagecoach, somewhere between Macon and Dijon, Cappeau penned the words to what he originally called “Minuit, Chrétiens,” or “Midnight, Christians,” from the opening line of the poem.
The Original Score
In town that year (1843) was an engineer from Paris by the name of Pierre Laurey. He was there to complete construction on a suspension bridge over the Rhone River. His wife Emily was a rising opera singer, and an acquaintance of Cappeau, with whom she connected during her stay in Roquemaure.
Emily Laurey was captivated by Cappeau’s poem, and asked if she could have it set to music by a friend of hers, Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803-1856). Adam was a talented pianist, organist, and composer who was in high demand in his day. He was best known for his classic ballets “Faust” and “Giselle.” He was also credited with developing a style of opera that involved extended recitative, which is a spoken dialog over music—sort of like what Professor Higgins does in My Fair Lady.
But here’s the problem: Adam was Jewish! He didn’t celebrate Christmas; he didn’t regard Jesus as the Messiah; and the theology of Cappeau’s poem would have been heretical to him. (It was heretical to Cappeau himself!) Nevertheless, Adam took the job, and in about three weeks he produced the hauntingly tender tune called “Cantique de Noël,” or “Christmas Song.” Ironically, Adam didn’t really care for the tune, calling it “a religious Marseillaise.”
Emily Laurey had since returned to Paris with her husband, and she was supposed to come back later that year to perform the new song on Christmas Eve, but she became pregnant, and her doctor advised her not to make the trip. In fact, she wasn’t able to travel for the next couple of years, and in October of 1846, Father Gilles died, without ever having heard the song performed in his parish.
The Original Performance
The following year, Emily Laurey was finally able to come back to Roquemaure, and on December 24, 1847, she sang “Minuit Chrétiens” for the first time in public, accompanied on the organ by Madame Blairac during midnight mass. The original commission by Father Gilles four years earlier had finally become a reality.
The congregation was deeply moved by the carol, and it began to spread in popularity. The song found its way into numerous Christmas services throughout Europe, but the church hierarchy opposed it, as did many politicians. The problem was three-fold.
First of all, the words were written by a secularist. Secondly, its reference to the slaves and non-slaves being “united in love” was scandalous for many politicians. And thirdly, the music was written by a Jewish man who didn’t believe in Jesus as the Christ. So the song was suppressed. Yet even as the church officially tried to bury the song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later an American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
The Original Translation
Rev. John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) was a Unitarian minister and a Transcendentalist (in the vein of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau). He denied the biblical doctrine of the Trinity; he denied the biblical doctrine of salvation; and he denied the biblical doctrine of the Bible—even though he was educated at Harvard Divinity School (or maybe because he was educated at Harvard Divinity School!)
Transcendentalists were known for placing a higher value on human intuition than they did on scriptural revelation. But Dwight was also a music critic, and he loved the musicality of “Cantique de Noël.” As an ardent abolitionist, he also appreciated the reference in the third verse to the equality of slaves. So in 1855, he translated the French lyrics into English so that American congregations could sing it as well.
But it’s not a strict translation. In fact, Dwight took a lot of liberties with the text. He stripped the composition of the theology he didn’t agree with, and he replaced it with something more to his liking. In that sense, Dwight was more presumptuous than Cappeau—who didn’t agree with the song’s theology but was faithful to the original commission by the church. And Dwight was more presumptuous than Adam, who, as a Jew, didn’t believe in the deity of Christ, either, but wrote a musical masterpiece for it anyway.
Here are Dwight’s adjustments to Cappeau’s lyrics in the first verse:
Cappeau: Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle
English: Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour
Dwight: O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
Cappeau: Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous,
English: When the God-Man descended among us
Dwight: It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Cappeau: Pour effacer la tache originelle,
English: To expunge the stain of original sin
Dwight: Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Cappeau: Et de son Père arrêter le courroux.
English: And to put an end to the wrath of His father.
Dwight: Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
Cappeau: Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance,
English: The entire world thrills with hope
Dwight: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
Cappeau: À cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.
English: On this night which gives us a Savior.
Dwight: For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Cappeau: Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance
English: People, on your knees, await your deliverance.
Dwight: Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
Cappeau: Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur!
English: Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer!
Dwight: O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
Cappeau: Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur!
English: Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer!
Dwight: O night, divine! O night divine!
All told, here’s what Dwight eliminated in the first verse:
• The midnight Christmas mass as “the solemn hour”
• Jesus Christ as “the God-Man” come among us
• “Original sin” as the problem for which Christ is the solution
• The “Father’s wrath” against sin that needed to be assuaged
• The concept of Jesus as “the Redeemer”
So, as it turns out, Dwight was the most intolerant guy of the lot. And yet, even he couldn’t destroy the beauty of the piece. He watered it down, but he didn’t neuter it completely. What remains after Dwight’s hack job is a world pining away in sin, and Jesus as the one whose birth unleashes heaven’s assault against that sin. That’s orthodox as far as it goes, and even Dwight couldn’t transcendentalize it away. In fact, the song became a hit during the Civil War era in this country, especially in the North.
The Original Broadcast
On Christmas Eve 1906, a 33-year-old university professor by the name of Reginald Fessenden did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, he spoke into a microphone, and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast clearly over the airwaves.
Here’s what Fessenden said:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. . . .”
He read from the Christmas story in Luke Chapter 2. Shocked radio operators on ships, and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat in disbelief as their normal, coded impulses were interrupted by a man reading the Bible. To those who caught the broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle.
After finishing his reading from Luke 2, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever to be sent through the airwaves by radio. Music had found a new medium that night, and the world would never be the same again. And it all started with Adam’s “Cantique de Noël.”
Conclusion—The Original Christmas
From the perspective of an evangelical Christian, the beloved carol “O Holy Night” has a strange and fascinating history. It was:
• commissioned by a Catholic priest;
• written by a secular unbeliever;
• set to music by a Jewish man who didn’t believe in Jesus;
• first performed by a high society opera star; and
• translated into English by a Unitarian Transcendentalist.
So the history of the song is as messy as the first Christmas, when Jesus took on flesh and dwelt among us. And maybe that’s the real beauty of this hymn—it’s messiness. After all, the first Christmas revealed that God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours.
And in cleaning up our mess, Jesus himself got messy. Nothing is messier than a cross. And yet, nothing is more beautiful than Christ’s willingness to embrace that cross—laying down his life for those “in sin and error pining.”
And that’s why I call the story behind this poignant Christmas hymn “a muddled mess resulting in beauty.”