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The intriguing history of 'O Holy Night'

The story of “O Holy Night” is as dramatic as when the popular Christmas carol crescendos to the verse that rings out, “Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born!”

Scandal, politics and ground-breaking moments power the history of the popular Christmas song.  While sorting out fact from fiction may leave a narrative less spectacular than legend, the popularity of “O Holy Night” has never waned across the centuries.  

Just the facts, more or less

Concerning the facts, the when is a bit fluid but the where, the who and the why are generally undisputed. In 1843 or 1847 in the small French town of Roquemaure, a local poet named Placide Cappeau was asked by the priest to write a Christmas poem to commemorate the renovation of the church organ. After composing the poem, Cappeau asked Adolphe Adam, a popular composer, to set the lines to music. History claims the song titled “Cantique de Noel” debuted in 1847 at a midnight mass and became a favorite among French congregations.

What follows is a story of intrigue that definitely makes for good reading though scholars place doubt on its accuracy. Cappeau allegedly was not a religious man and, after writing the lyrics to “O Holy Night,” is said to have denounced the church to join a socialist movement. Likewise, many publications report that Adam was Jewish. Having a popular Christian church song whose authors either weren’t religious or who didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus was unacceptable to the Catholic Church in France, so the song was banned for more than two decades. In recent years, however, the story of Adam’s Jewish heritage has been disputed.

From France to America

As the song gained popularity in France, an American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, discovered “O Holy Night” in 1855. Inspired by the lyrics about Christ’s victory over sin and our shared humanity, Dwight slightly revised the third verse to read, “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.”

He published the updated version in his magazine, “Dwight’s Journal of Music,” which propelled the song to popularity in the United States and, particularly, in the North during the Civil War as abolitionists related to the anti-slavery sentiment.

A radio hit across the world

Another bit of trivia about “O Holy Night” is the claim that it was the first song ever broadcast live. Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden, a protégé of Thomas Edison, was an early pioneer of radio broadcasting. He alleges that on December 21, 1906, he broadcast a recording of Handel’s “Largo,” followed by himself reading from the Gospel of Luke and then playing “O Holy Night” on the violin. This exciting placement in history, though, has been questioned. Some records say that Fessenden actually played “Adore and Be Still” and misremembered it in the retelling.

Even if “O Holy Night” can’t claim the distinction, the song has been recorded hundreds of times throughout the world by the likes of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Lauren Daigle, the cast of “Glee,” Martina McBride and Tommy Drennan and the Monarchs who reached No. 1 on the Official Irish Singles Chart in 1971 with their version.

Whether Cappeau was an atheist, Adam was Jewish or Fessenden marked the first broadcasted performance with the popular Christmas song seems not to matter. More than 175 years later, at Christmas Eve services throughout the world, congregations rejoice in the promise brought by Jesus’ divine birth by singing the words, “With a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.”

“O Holy Night” is not included in the United Methodist Hymnal but a hymn version is provided by Discipleship Ministries.

Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email.

This content was published December 7, 2022.