The interesting thing about “O Holy Night” is that it was not created by anyone who was a genuine Christian. It began as a poem written by a Frenchman who was a commissionaire of wine in response to a request by his parish priest for a poem to be used at midnight mass on Christmas. Placide Cappeau used the text of Luke to imagine what it would have been like to be in the manger when Jesus was born. After he complete the poem Cappeau asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, a Jew, to help him turn the poem into a song.
As Adolphe studied “Cantique de Noel,” he couldn’t help but note its overtly spiritual lyrics embracing the birth of a Savior. A man of Jewish ancestry, these words represented a holiday he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the Son of God. Nevertheless, moved by more than friendship, Adams quickly and diligently went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’s finished work pleased both poet and priest. It was performed just three weeks later at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Neither the wine commissionaire nor the composer was prepared for what happened next.
Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song—which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France—was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist, translated the song into English and brought it to the U.S. by publishing it in his magazine and multiple songbooks. For Dwight the song spoke to the issue of slavery and taught us that Christ came to liberate all men from the bondage of sin. Naturally, the song became popular in the North during the Civil War.
In France, the song remained in a condemned status until an American performed what some people thought was a miracle using the song.
Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden—a thirty-three-year-old university professor in Pittsburgh and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison—did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.
Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle—hearing a voice somehow turned into electrical waves and transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.
Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t know that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. Yet after finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast—but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.
“O Holy Night” has gone on to become one of the most popular Christmas songs, with sales copies in the tens of millions. It took a very strange and circuitous religious journey from its inauspicious beginnings to its current status. Its lyrics do a good job of capturing the hope of the gospel. “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.”