Author: Andrew Wileman
The central character of this stunning song was Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant and the mayor of Roquemaure, France. In 1847, to the surprise of people in his town, the parish priest asked Placide to write a Christmas poem. Placide’s only qualification at the time was his love of writing poems. The result was “Cantique de Noel” (“O Holy Night”).
That same year, Placide’s friend Adolphe-Charles Adam wrote accompanying music for the carol, and it debuted on Christmas Eve. The magnificent carol quickly spread throughout France, but in its infancy, the song faced some challenges. Word got around about its authors. Written by a drinking socialist, and a Jewish musical composer, Church leaders were unhappy with its origins and integrity. Thus, the song was banned throughout the church in France. One French bishop denounced it saying that it “lacked musical taste and was totally absent of the spirit of religion.”.
However, the people wisely ignored that ban and continued to sing it. The spirit of the song, even though it had been declared lacking, had sunk deep into the hearts of the people and “Oh Holy Night” lived on within them, being sung in houses and during local gatherings. until its beautiful music and words started to be heard outside of France.
The English version of “O Holy Night” developed when American writer John Sullivan Dwight discovered it. A dedicated abolitionist, John was moved by the carol’s reminder that Jesus came to bring justice:
“Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.”
In 1871, the story is told that on Christmas Eve during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier ran out of his trench unarmed and began to sing this carol. Silence fell across the battlefield, and when he was finished, a German soldier came out and sang a favourite German carol. A Christmas ceasefire followed.
This carol has the distinction of being the first song ever to be played live on a radio broadcast in the USA. On December 24, 1906, a Canadian inventor, Reginald Fessenden, broadcast one of the first ever AM radio programs, and the first ever to feature music for a general audience. He went to play “O Holy Night” on his violin, singing the last verse as he played. He finished the broadcast by reading various passages from the Gospel of Luke, before wishing his listeners a Merry Christmas.
The songwriter Placide Chappele has captured the response that has moved millions with its message of hope over the years.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
I love that phrase that sums up the hope we have in Jesus. The phrase is, “the soul felt its worth.” I fear that there are many people, even some of us reading this today, who miss this part of the message. Not only do we have the hope that Jesus acknowledges and brings light to a weary world, but we are now given a purpose. You matter. You have immense worth in the eyes of your Lord and Saviour.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
What an incredible journey this song has had. Written by a faithless man who was shown a glimpse of glory, composed by someone of Jewish faith, banned by the French Church, sung by American abolitionists, it brought armies together for a ceasefire in the trenches over Christmas, and part of the first radio broadcast in the world.
It’s not just a song, but a beacon of hope for any and all who will listen.
What does the origins of this Carol teach us about how Jesus uses the extraordinary for his purposes?
If you close you eyes and think about this beautiful carol, what thoughts and images come to mind?
Can you feel the hope running through this carol? What do you need hope for today?
As well as being a Faith in Later Life Trustee, Andrew Wileman is the Assistant Director for Older People’s Services at The Salvation Army. This blog is part of Three Advent Stories shared with Faith in later Life from Andrew’s book ‘Songs of the Faith’.
Read the other stories here: