O Holy Night — An Atheist, A Jew and An Abolitionist.

Published by Vision Editorial Team | vision.org.au
Wednesday, December 1st, 2021

An atheist, a Jew and an abolitionist. How did these three get involved in the famous Christmas carol ‘O Holy Night’?

The French Origins

In 1847, a French priest approached poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau to pen a poem for the Christmas mass. Placide was an atheist but he obliged. Drawing inspiration from the Book of Luke, he imagined what it would be like on the night of Jesus’ birth. ‘Cantique de Noel’ was the result.

Just as a side note, Placide was a one-armed man. As a child, his friend accidentally shot his arm, which then had to be amputated. He grew in the arts including winning a prize for his drawing.

The priest liked the poem so much that he wanted to make it into a carol. Placide then took the poem to his Jewish friend and famous composer Adolphe Adam.

The carol was played on Christmas Eve and became an instant hit in the French churches. But when the church discovered the origins of the song, they deemed it unfit for use. But French families continued to sing it in their homes.

Travelling to USA

A decade later, John Sullivan Dwight discovered this carol and brought it over to America. He took the liberty to translate and amend some of the lyrics to give it more reverence to Jesus, his Saviour. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: “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.” He published his English rendition, ‘O Holy Night’ in his magazine and the song took off.

A Legendary Truce

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve in 1871, whilst the French and German soldiers were in a fierce battle, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench, looked up at the sky and started to sing “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous”, the beginning of ‘Cantique de Noel’. A German soldier responded with “”Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of Martin Luther’s poem “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”. This sparked a truce for 24 hours for both parties to celebrate Christmas.

The Christmas Eve Miracle

Less of a legend but more fact, on Christmas Eve of 1906, Reginald Fessenden, former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, did something thought previously impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves.

Reginald read from the gospel of Luke, much to the astonishment of radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers. It was a Christmas Eve miracle. Men and women rushed to listen to this wonderous broadcast.

After his recital on the birth of Christ, Reginald played ‘O Holy Night’. It became the first song ever to be played on the airwaves!

The Lyrics for ‘O Holy Night’

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,
Till 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 angel 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 the 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 weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Here’s a popular rendition of this song:

Though written by an atheist and composed by a Jew who did not recognise Jesus, God has used the song to touch millions in the world. He is afterall, sovereign, and worthy for all to fall on our knees in awe. May you too be filled with awe.

Reflect & Respond:

  • What about God have you learnt from this story behind this Christmas carol? How does it give you fresh awe as you look upon Jesus this season?
  • Do you have a favourite rendition of this song? Which other carols do you like? What characteristics of Jesus do they point you to?
  • Have you thought you were not qualified to do something for God? How does the truth that the people who wrote the song that inspired many did not even know God?
  • Is there someone in your circle of influence who does not know this Christ of Christmas? For online resources, check out this page on Vision Christian Media’s website.

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