The Christmas Carol written by an Atheist, composed by a Jew, and translated by a Transcendentalist.

I once attended a worship service when the congregation attempted to sing O Holy Night. At the end, the worship leader shook her head, and said, “Well, that was awful.” As hard as it can be to sing, congregations around the world love this beautiful song. It has a majestic yet mysterious sound. It is regarded as holy but acknowledges the darkness within each of us. It also has a unique story.

It was Roquemaure, in southern France, in 1843. The parish priest wanted to commemorate the renovations of the church organ, so he commissioned a poem from the local poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau. While on an overnight stagecoach to Paris, Cappeau penned Minuit, Chretiens, or Midnight, Christians. The priest was extremely pleased with the poem, especially because the author was an outspoken atheist. However, the lyrics were so beautiful, the priest pushed forward and shared them with Adolphe Adam, a prolific Jewish composer. The resulting Christmas Carol was titled Cantique de Noel. It premiered in 1847 featuring a local opera singer Emily Laurey.

Cantique de Noel became instantly popular with Christians across France. However, once word reached the church officials that Cappeau was an atheist who publicly spoke out against the church, the song was banned from liturgical use in France. Even so, the song continued to spread outside the church and grew in popularity.

Later, in 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, an American music critic and Unitarian Minister translated the song into English. He was a Transcendentalist who believed there was goodness (and possibly holiness) in everything and everyone. His translation liberties can be seen in our current version of O Holy Night. when the evening itself is seen as holy. For Dwight, the night was holy in and of itself, not simply because of its connection to Jesus’ birth. Most people missed this completely because the chorus includes the lyric, “O Night when Christ was born.” The song then continued to grow in popularity across the English speaking and French speaking worlds. 

The song is believed to have even played a part in the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve in 1870, French troops sang Cantique de Noel from the battle trenches. In the stillness, German soldiers heard the singing and were moved. In response, they sang a carol by Martin Luther. This impromptu Christmas worship resulted in a 24 hour truce in honor of Christmas. Now, there is a strong possibility that this never happened, but the story spread across France making the song wildly popular which resulted in its eventual reinstatement in the liturgy of French churches.

So, there you have it. O Holy Night was a song commissioned to celebrate an instrument, written by an outspoken atheist, composed by a devout Jew, translated by a Transcendentalist, banned from church use in France, finally used as an instrument of peace in a time of war. Most people sing it without concern to its origin, which is probably just as well, but it does go to show you that God can work through the most unlikely of sources to create something beautiful.

Click here to hear a version of O Holy Night sung by Carrie Underwood on the Tonight Show.

*Image used courtesy of Ales Krivec and Unsplash

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