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"The Story Behind 'O Holy Night' "
By Dr. Jeff Sanders

It's a tough song to sing isn't it?  Also hard to play on the piano (so I've been told).  But it is the "show stopper" at many Christmas cantatas.  You just can't help but get a thrill when you belt out the chorus "Fall on your knees. . . ."  But the carol "O Holy Night" was actually banned by church leadership, and if it were not for the common people, the powerful song would have faded into obscurity.  

In 1847 a commissioner of wine in France, Mr. Placide Cappeau, was asked by his parish priest to write a poem for the Christmas Eve service.  On a hard carriage ride to Paris, the gentleman imagined himself a witness to the birth of Christ.  The wonder of that glorious moment flowed through his pen, and he gave us the poem "Cantique de Noel" ("Song of Christmas).  Cappeau had the words, but now he needed the music to lift souls heavenward in song.  

He asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams.  It was an unusual request.  Adams was a trained classical musician, but he was of the Jewish faith.  Nevertheless, he good naturedly received his friend's request and began at once to compose an original tune for the poem.  It was a perfect match and the song was performed for the congregation on Christmas Eve.  The French people loved the carol, but later after Cappeau left the church for the philosophy of socialism, and after it was discovered that the composer was not of the Christian faith, the church leadership banned the song from its liturgy throughout France.

However, the French people would not let the song die and continued to embrace it--even if they had to sing it outside the official approval of the church.  Ten years later, an American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight, heard the carol and loved its vibrant message of hope---especially the verse that says "Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease."  His English translation quickly became popular in the North during the American Civil War.   

Legend has it that the French Catholic Church finally received the song back into its worship services after an encounter between French and German troops during the Franco-Prussian War.  During a lull in fighting, a French soldier began singing "Cantique de Noel."  The Germans were so moved that they responded by singing one of Luther's hymns.  The "songfest" encouraged the soldiers to honor a truce for 24 hours on Christmas.

The end of this story involves the beginning of modern technology--the invention of the radio.  On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden (a former colleague of Thomas Edison) was experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph.  Fessenden began reading the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke chapter 2.  Around the world, wireless operators on ships and at newspaper desks began to hear a man's voice come out of their machines.  It was the first radio broadcast of a man's voice. . . .and it was the Gospel of Christ.  But it doesn't end there. 

Fessenden then picked up a violin and began to play a tune.  You guessed it. . . . . "O Holy Night."  The song written by a wine merchant, set to music by a Jewish composer, banned by church leaders, kept alive by the French, adopted by American abolitionists,  sung by troops in the trenches, and at last broadcast to the whole world by invisible radio waves.  The first song ever played over the radio:  "O Holy Night."   Fall on your knees.  O hear the angel voices.  O night divine.  The night when Christ was born.  O night divine. 

 

 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011, 10:13 AM

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