The Story Behind “O Holy Night”

o holy night

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.”

 

 

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Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire: Christmas in July

roasting chestnuts

The background of “The Christmas Song” is probably the most amusing story of all Christmas music because it was written in the intense heat of a July in Southern California. We have the song today because of two men, Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Mel was a famous entertainer who grew up in show business and became an actor and songwriter. Robert was also a songwriter and good friend of Mel’s.

Mel tells the story:

I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil. They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off.”

Ace Collins gives us the rest of the story:

It had been chestnuts that started Wells’s strange train of thought. He had seen his mother bring in a bag of them to stuff a turkey for dinner. Wells was thrown back to the days when he saw vendors selling chestnuts on New York City street corners. Yet while Wells was after nothing more than an attempt to “think cold,” Mel caught a glimpse of a song in the phrases he had written. With the temperature in the nineties and both men sweating through their clothes, they got to work on what was to become a Christmas classic. It took just forty minutes. The assigned movie title songs were pushed aside as Wells and Torme climbed into a car and drove away to show off their latest song…

From the moment Torme stopped in at Cole’s Los Angeles home and played “The Christmas Song” on his piano, Nat loved it. Sensing the song was a classic, he wanted to record it before Torme could offer it to anyone else. Within days, Cole had rearranged the song to suit his voice and pacing, and cut it for Capitol Records. His instincts about the song’s potential were right. Released in October of 1946, the song stayed in the Top Ten for almost two months. Nat’s hit charted again in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1954. Though “The Christmas Song” would ultimately be recorded by more than a hundred other artists—including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and even Mel Torme himself—none could ever break Cole’s “ownership rights.” The song was instantly and forevermore a Nat King Cole classic.

No one thought about it at the time, but Cole’s cut of Torme’s song became the first American Christmas standard introduced by an African American. The success of that cut helped open the door for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Ethel Waters to put their own spins on holiday classics. It gave black audiences a chance to hear their favorite stars sing the carols that they loved as deeply as all other Christians. Thanks to “The Christmas Song,” for the first time in the commercial marketplace, Christmas was not reserved for “whites only.”

The story is that Cole wanted to record the song before Bing Crosby had a chance to make it into another hit following “White Christmas.” Crosby had already done that to Bob Hope when he tried to make a hit Christmas song. Although this song was written to help Wells think about winter whenever I hear this song I always imagine the hot weather of SoCal in July.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” Doesn’t Mean What You Think

A few years ago I downloaded a free ebook on my nook while sitting in a Barnes and Noble that has turned out to be a great resource that I go back to every year. The book is called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins and it’s been a treat to own. Over the next few weeks I’ll share excerpts from the book.

More likely than not you probably didn’t know the true meaning of the hymn “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or that a comma has vanished from the title over time.

When people today say “Merry Christmas!” the word merry means “happy.” When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s Merry Men might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant “great” and “mighty.” Thus, in the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.

So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang the words “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men. Ye means “you,” but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to one last word that has a much different meaning in today’s world, as well as a lost punctuation mark.

The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means “keep” or “make.” And to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word merry. Therefore, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read, “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, “Merry Christmas!”

You might wonder why, when most don’t fully understand the real meaning of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the old carol has remained popular. The world’s love for this song is probably due to its upbeat melody paired with the telling of the most upbeat story the world has ever known. Those who sing it naturally get caught up in the celebratory mood of the message, embracing the same emotions that those first to visit the baby Jesus must have felt. As the angel told the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy.” That joy and the power of faith can be felt and experienced in every note and word of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” You just have to know how to translate the words into the language of the day in order to have a very “Mighty Christmas!”

I’m sure this hymn will now have a new, deeper meaning for you. If you haven’t read the lyrics recently I’d invite you to revisit them again because it so beautifully includes the important points of the gospel.