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O Holy Night

Updated July 16, 2022
O Holy Night

O Holy Night, a worldwide-revered Christmas hymn commonly performed at church services and festive concerts, has a not-so-holy origin.

Art cannot be interpreted out of context, and one of the factors affecting its meaning is the author’s background.

Despite the lyrics full of religious references and profound symbolism, O Holy Night was created by non-Christian authors, which raised a dispute among church parishioners.

However, the authors composed the hymn with their best intentions, and people soon saw beyond religious stigma, appreciating the meaning behind the lyrics.

Although O Holy Night’s author ultimately preferred politics to religion, the song became one of the favorite Christmas anthems of all time.

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Lyrics

O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appears 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, O Holy 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; before Him lowly bend
 
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

Origins

O Holy Night, originally written in French and known as Cantique de Noël, is based on an 1843 poem Minuit, Chrétiens by Placide Cappeau. The words were set to music in 1847 by Adolphe Adam, a well-known composer and music critic.

Apart from the carol O Holy Night, you may be familiar with Adolphe Adam from his Giselle and Le Corsaire ballets. The song’s story began when the local church in the small town of Roquemaure in France renovated an organ.

The local priest then asked Placide Cappeau, a town native, to write a poem about the nativity story, which he gladly did. After Adolphe Adam composed the melody, the carol was first performed in Roquemaure’s church by an opera singer Emily Laurey.

Because the song was written to be performed by opera singers, featuring a wide vocal range, it’s one of the most challenging carols to perform for amateurs. Children rarely sing it at neighbors’ doorsteps, but professional choir singers adore it.

Emily Laurey was already pretty famous in France when she sang O Holy Night, so the song quickly gained local popularity. An American Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight translated the poem into English in 1855.

The controversy of O Holy Night is related to its authors. Placide Cappeau, the author of O Holy Night lyrics, was a known atheist, and Adolphe Adams, the music composer, was a Jew.

In other words, neither of the men working on the song were Roquemaure church’s regulars, which caused a furor among the devoted parishioners and conservative church authorities.

At first, when people didn’t know about the Atheist-Jewish origin of O Holy Night, it was often performed at Christmas services. But after the authors’ background was discovered, the church authorities declared it unsuitable for the celebrations of Christ’s birth.

Some people insisted that the carol lacked musical flavor and religious spirit. Furthermore, the lyrics stated that every person has a soul, which was somewhat radical back then.

French Catholics went as far as to say Placide Cappeau attempted to humiliate Christians, but most likely, he simply couldn’t refuse a favor to his acquaintance, who happened to be a priest. Cappeau was a talented writer in the first place and only then an atheist.

Placide Capepau was an educated person who fulfilled his task skillfully, with great attention to Biblical detail. Furthermore, the power of music has no borders. Some suggest that music is a divine creation, and carols like O Holy Night prove it.

While the French Catholic church was actively trying to bury the song, its English translation had an immense success in the U.S. during the Civil War. Dwight’s lyrics focused on the human spirit’s universality.

Perhaps, Dwight’s Christian background helped O Holy Night in the U.S. avoid its fate in France. On the other hand, Dwight was also a transcendentalist who believed that goodness was inherent in all people, which opposed the Biblical teachings of inborn sin.

Transcendentalists believed that everything surrounding us is divine instead of thinking of distant heaven. That was a progressive idea for that time, based on Biblical criticism of Johann Herder.

Although O Holy Night was written by an atheist, at some point, the French accepted the poem’s controversial origin, and nowadays, French churches often perform it at Christmas.

According to a popular legend, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, on Christmas Eve, a French soldier stood up from a trench and faced his German opponents unarmed, singing O Holy Night, to which they responded by singing the German version of the carol.

We don’t know whether this heartfelt story really occurred, but the carol undoubtedly has an inspiring, uplifting tone that gives hope to everyone listening to it. This makes the religious backgrounds of its authors even more ironic.

Here’s an interesting fact about Placide Cappeau unrelated to his poem – his childhood friend accidentally shot his arm, so he only wrote all his poetry with his left hand. Impress your friends with knowledge the next time you hear the carol.

Throughout the years, O Holy Night acquired numerous recordings in various styles, from classical to country and pop. In 1971, Tommy Drennan’s and the Monarchs O Holy Night recording reached No. 1 on the Official Irish Singles Chart.

In 1994, the song was recorded by Mariah Carrey as part of her first studio album Merry Christmas, also famous for songs such as All I Want for Christmas Is You and Baby, Please Come Home.

Carrey’s cover has hit No. 70 on Billboard Holiday 100 Chart and was re-released twice but never repeated its success. In 1998, Celine Dion’s version of the carol was ranked No. 44 on the Billboard Holiday Chart.

Other notable recordings of O Holy Night were made by Martina McBride, Josh Groban, John Berry, and David Foster.

Meaning

O Holy Night lyrics narrate the nativity story from the moment of Jesus’ birth to the arrival of the Three Wise Men and their worshipping of the Messiah. But to understand the deeper meaning of the poem, we should unravel the symbolism of its lines.

The first two lines say that it’s the night of our Savior’s birth, referring to Christ’s sacrifice. He was crucified for our wrongdoings because all people are descendants of Adam and are born sinful. To receive redemption, one must shed blood.

Jesus shed his blood to give us a chance for eternal life. In the first line, the author mentions stars that are brightly shining. One would say that stars only set the scene, but stars play an essential role in the nativity story.

According to prophecy, a new star would rise above Israel when the Messiah was born. This star would then guide the Three Wise Men from the East to Bethlehem.

The third line states that the world has long laid in sin until Christ appeared, emphasizing his role as the Savior of all Christians.

The seventh line, “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” is a metaphor for the new beginning of humanity, new hope granted to us by the birth of the Messiah.

In the second verse, people are led by the light of faith to admire the miracle of Christ’s coming. We can perceive this line literally, but “light of faith” may also refer to Jesus’ words, “I am the light of the world.”

With this phrase, Jesus once again declares himself the Savior of humankind. He speaks from God, bringing us hope and knowledge, thus giving us light. Without God, humanity would live in darkness.

The lines are somewhat ambiguous since they don’t explain who are the “we” standing by Jesus’ cradle. “We” surely doesn’t refer to the listeners because none of us were in Bethlehem at the moment of his birth.

More likely, the lyrics refer to shepherds who were the first people to witness the miracle. In the New Testament, shepherds were guarding their flock when an angel appeared and told them not to fear because he brought them tidings of great joy.

The angel then gave shepherds instructions on how to find Jesus. At that time, shepherds were considered unclean because they were in daily contact with smelly sheep and their manure.

Shepherds were the first to witness Jesus’ coming because God considers everyone equal. Only men perceived shepherds as outcasts of society – for God, they were worthy of love just like everyone else.

The following lines refer to the Three Wise Men, the Magi who came to worship Jesus from the lands far away. The Magi brought Jesus gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, symbolically acknowledging him as the king of all Kings, a God, and our Savior.

At that time, gold was considered the metal of royals, frankincense was used in religious rituals by high priests, and myrrh was used for embalming dead people.

The author writes that the King of Kings, referring to Jesus, laid in a lowly manger, emphasizing his humbleness. The line “In all our trials born to be our friend” yet again indicates his role in our fate and his equal attitude to all people.

The last verse presents us with the primary thought of the poem, wrapping up preceding verses and unraveling the meaning of O Holy Night. Jesus has taught people to love one another and broke our chains, giving humankind a chance for salvation.

Image credit: Pexels

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