O Holy Night: The Christmas Carol Written By An Atheist

I once attended a worship service when, after a failed congregational singing of the Christmas carol O Holy Night, the worship leader stopped the music, looked out at the people, and said, “Well, that was awful.” As hard as it can be to sing, congregations around the world love to at least hear the carol sung skillfully each year. It has a majestic yet mysterious sound. It is regarded as holy but acknowledges the darkness within each of us. It also has a heck of a 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 written work 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 strong, the priest pushed forward and asked Cappeau to share it with Adolphe Adam, a prolific Jewish composer. The resulting Christmas Carol was titled “Cantique de Noel” and premiered in 1847, featuring a local opera singer Emily Laurey.

Even though “Cantique de Noel” was penned by an atheist, composed by a practicing Jew, and performed by a secular artist, it 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, Cantique de Noel 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 and believed there was goodness (and possibly holiness) in everything and everyone. He took some translation liberties with the song. This can be seen in our current version of O Holy Night when the evening itself is seen as being 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. 

It is believed to have even played a part in the Franco-Prussian War. On Christmas Eve in 1870, French troops started singing “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 so both sides could celebrate 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 the song sung by Carrie Underwood on the Tonight Show.

*Image courtesy of Markus Spiske

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