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Hymn Study ~ O Holy Night

In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure,  the commissionaire of wines in a small French town was asked to do something a bit unusual. He was known more for his poetry than his church attendance, and yet, the parish priest asked the commissionaire to write a poem for the Christmas Mass.  Holy_Night

Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau penned one of the most beautiful poems ever known, “Cantique de Noel”.  It was a beautiful poem and seemed to need music.  But how to set it to music?  Cappeau was not a musician so he turned to friend and composer Adolph Charles Adams, who happened to be Jewish.

Adams studied at the Paris conservatoire and was the son of a well-known classical musician. His own music had been played all over the world. He didn’t hold the religious views of Cappeau but he went to work and created an original musical score for the poem. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

“Cantique de Noel” was received wholeheartedly by the good folks at the service and later by the whole Catholic Church. However, when Cappeau became active in the Socialist party and it was learned that Adams was a Jew, the Church renounced the song as unfit for church services because of its “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Even as the Church tried to bury the song, the French people continued to sing it and eventually it was brought over to America by John Sullivan Dwight.

Dwight had another reason to promote the song, the third verse which reads:
“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.”

These verses supported Dwight’s view of slavery and he published the poem in his magazine as “O Holy Night”. The song quickly caught on and found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.

Returning to France where the song had continued for 20 years to be sung in homes, legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his trench and began to sing; “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the beginning of “Cantique de Noel.”

In response, a German soldier climbed out of his own trench and sang, “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 “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

What followed was a 24 hour cease fire in honor of Christmas Day.

In 1906 Cappeau and Dwight were old men, Adams was deceased. Reginald Fessenden–a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, did something that had been thought impossible up to that time. He spoke into a microphone that used a new type of generator and for the first time a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Radio operators on ships and wireless owners at newspapers were completely amazed to hear a voice in place of the normal coded impulses. After finishing his recitation from scripture on the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves.


O Holy Night
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, 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 he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

1 Comment

  1. Rosa Paulucci Machado

    A star has come to earth! Spread the Christmas love and cheer! The warmth and joy of Christmas brings us closer to each other. Merry Christmas !