I have been reading recently about a controversy involving a well-loved Christmas carol and the mistaken claims that some of its lyrics, and especially the third verse, are a recent invention. Let me tell you the story behind this great hymn. (Parts of this material were adapted from Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, Copyright © 2001, Andrew Collins, published by Zondervan.)
The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had a reputation as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.
Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a melody for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.
But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the music had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, without musical taste, and completely lacking in “the spirit of religion.”
That might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique” –
Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love, and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, 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: Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever! His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!
There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when he was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. Troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.
“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”
Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.
I love this carol, and it often moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, but also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Jesus in breaking the chains of sin and injustice. And not just on December 25, but throughout the year.
That really is the best way of “keeping Christ in Christmas.”