Compared to ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ and ‘Carol of the Bells’, ‘O Holy Night’ is a relatively recent addition to our best-loved Christmas carols.

King’s College Choir, Cambridge, sing it here. This beautiful song is regularly part of their televised Christmas concerts, the BBC’s Carols from King’s:

The melody and lyrics are French. In the 19th century, a Catholic priest asked one of his parishoners to write a Christmas poem. Placide Cappeau wrote Cantique de Noël (Christmas Canticle), which translates as follows (more at the link):

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.

People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer! …

In 1847, the French composer Adolphe Adam set the lyrics to music, the same melody we hear today. In 1855, a Unitarian minister in the United States, John Sullivan Dwight, translated the French lyrics to English (more at the link):

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d 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 …

Placide Cappeau‘s Wikipedia entry says that he was a secularist in the tradition of the French Revolution. The entry makes no mention of his pastor’s request to write a Christmas poem. If Cappeau were a full secularist or deist it is unlikely he could have written a poem which so accurately presents the theology of man’s sin and Christ’s redeeming sacrifice.

Cappeau’s family were winemakers and coopers (barrel makers). He was supposed to have gone into the family business. Unfortunately, when he was eight years old, he was the victim of a handgun accident. A young playmate of his inadvertently shot him in the hand. Cappeau lost his right hand and his future in the business. To make amends, the father of his young friend paid half of Cappeau’s tuition at school. Cappeau applied himself to his studies and was able to the Collège Royal d’Avignon. He also studied in Nîmes.

After having studied the arts — drawing and literature — he went to law school and obtained his degree in 1831. He never practiced law, however, and ended up becoming a wine merchant. Literature was still his main pursuit. Several of his works were published and among his friends were the most famous writers of the day, such as Alphonse Daudet and Alphonse de Lamartine.

Adolphe Adam, who composed the music to ‘O Holy Night’, also wrote the ballet Giselle. He also wrote several operas.

Adam’s father was also a composer as well as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Adam’s mother was the daughter of a physician. Adam became interested in music as a child, despite his father’s discouragement.

Adam studied at the Paris Conservatoire and made his living as an organist. He also wrote music hall songs. He success as a composer enabled him to travel around Europe.

Adam called ‘O Holy Night’ ‘the religious “Marseillaise”‘ [the French national anthem].

John Sullivan Dwight was the son of a doctor. The Dwights were a distinguished New England family. Dwight was ordained as a Unitarian minister after his studies at Harvard Divinity School but never pursued his vocation. Instead, he devoted his life to music and to utopian pursuits.

He lived at a commune, Brook Farm, and served as the director of their school. In 1847, the year that Adam wrote the music to ‘O Holy Night’, Brook Farm dissolved because of financial difficulties. Dwight moved to Boston, where he set up a co-operative house and began publishing a music periodical, Dwight’s Journal of Music.  It was widely respected and featured contributions from other composers and music historians of the day. It was during this time that Dwight translated Cappeau’s poem into English and featured ‘O Holy Night’ in his journal.

‘O Holy Night’ was the second piece of music to have been heard on the radio. Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, broadcast the first AM radio programme in 1906. After broadcasting a piece by Handel, he played  ‘O Holy Night’ on the violin and sang the final verse:

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.