O Holy Night is one of the best loved of all Christmas carols. The words and music combine to create a rousing and beautiful carol. It also has an interesting history.
The carol was originally written as a poem by French poet and writer, Placide Cappeau (1808-1877). In 1843 he was approached by his parish priest at Roquemaure, a town near Avignon in southern France, to write a poem to commemorate the restoration of the church organ. Cappeau accepted the request and published his finished work with the title ‘Minuit, chretiens’ which means ‘Midnight, christians’. Soon afterwards Cappeau approached his friend and composer, Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-1856) to write music to accompany the poem. Adam was a prolific French composer of operas and ballets and music tutor to Delibes and other influential composers.
Adam called his finished tune ‘la Marseillaise religieuse’ or ‘The religious Marseillaise’, reflecting the republican and secular views of Cappeau. This may account for the rousing nature of the melody. The carol premiered at Roquemaure in 1847 in a performance by the opera singer, Emily Laurey.
It is interesting to consider that accounts of Cappeau report him as a somewhat irreligious man. Although born and raised a Roman Catholic he is said to have been an atheist in later life. This led to the carol being banned for a time by the Church in France!
In 1855 John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian Minister in Boston, Massachusetts, translated ‘Minuit, chretiens’ into English. Dwight is said to have softened the tone of Cappeau’s original work, successfully substituting the lyrics in the refrain from “People, kneel down, await your deliverance. Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer” to “O night divine, the night when Christ was born.”
The English translation alongside Adam’s melody was an immediate success, particularly in the United States where the third verse which contains the words “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease” resonated greatly with abolitionists, including Dwight.
An archive recording of the carol, sung to the original French lyrics can be heard online via the Bibliothèque nationale de France website:
Today, the popularity of O Holy Night remains strong. It has been sung by greats such as Andrea Bocelli and features in the annual Carols from Kings, Cambridge. It has also been voted the Nation’s Favourite Carol by listeners of Classic FM.
In a year when the world has witnessed so much pain and suffering the words of ‘O Holy Night’ can surely provide us with some comfort. In proclaiming the holy night on which Christ was born the following lines give us hope and joy:
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”
Graham Naylor – Graham, an archivist in Plymouth, is a former worshipper at St C’s and is now a member of our ‘diaspora’ people who are part of us and take interest in our work and encourage us from afar.