My wife and I have five grandchildren, and several of them have reached the age where they anticipate the lights, the sounds, and the smells, (not to mention gifts), of Christmas. Hopefully, they are saving away memories they will remember kindly for years to come. These are thoughts of family and friends, simplicity and purity, and recollections of celebrating a living faith in God’s Son.
I am blessed to have such memories. My dad was a pastor. In every church he served, he opened the church building for “come as you are” and “come when you can” Christmas Eve communion. At some point in the evening, my mom would sit down at the piano or organ, and my dad would sing, “O Holy Night.” He had a beautiful tenor voice, and I remember him singing the high notes clearly and effortlessly. The last time I heard him was 1987. His retirement was mere months away. There were few in attendance that Christmas Eve. His health was poor; his voice was frail. No matter. It was, perhaps, his greatest performance. Then, as always, singing was his offering to God and God, as always, listens for the heart of the worshipper.
The History of “O Holy Night”
Like many of our beloved hymns, “O Holy Night” has a rich history. In 1847, in a small French town, a part-time poet, named Placide Cappeau, was asked to compose an original poem for Christmas mass. “Cantique de Noel,” as it was called, was immediately recognized as an inspiring Christmas narrative, placing the hearer at the scene of the birth of Jesus. The poet asked a friend of Jewish descent, Adolphe Charles Adams, to write the melody. Initially reluctant, Adams was inspired by the lyrical nature of the poem and agreed to write the musical score. The hymn was an instant success throughout France. When Placide Cappeau left the Catholic church, the song was banned under the pretense that a Jew co-wrote it. To the Church’s consternation, the song went “viral” among the people.
An American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, heard the song and translated it into English. Mr. Dwight passionately opposed slavery, and he found inspiration in the words of third verse,
“Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease”
During the Civil War, “O Holy Night” became a cry of hope and encouragement among abolitionist churches.
In France, the Franco-Russian war raged through the winter of 1871. Stories are told of an unarmed French soldier stepping out of his trench and into the enemy’s gunsights, singing all three verses of “Cantique de Noel,” (O Holy Night). As the legend goes, he was answered by an unarmed German soldier who sang a Martin Luther Christmas Carol, which translated means “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” A twenty-four-hour respite from fighting ensued.
O Holy Night
Here is the translation of the original words penned by Placide Cappeau.
O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared 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 Orient land
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.
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.
Merry Christmas! May God hear your prayers and answer in His abundant wisdom and perfect timing. May you be healed and delivered; may you be strengthened and encouraged. May you rediscover the liberty of God’s grace in the year to come. May He give you the desires of your heart as you acknowledge Him. May you lift up your eyes and see Jesus as He so clearly sees you.