The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL
It is one of the best known and well loved of all Christmas songs. It has been sung by people such as Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza (very badly), Celine Dion and Nat King Cole.
It is supposed to have been the very first Christmas song ever broadcasted over radio. This was by a Canadian named Reginald Fessenden, who, in 1906 broadcasted it from the coast of Massachusetts to ships at sea.
It is rarely sing in the Episcopal Church, perhaps because the tune is somewhat too flamboyant for our supposedly refined tastes, or perhaps because it does not lend itself well to congregational singing.
It comes over better when rendered by soloist, chorus and orchestra. That’s not surprising since the composer of the tune, one M. Adolphe Adam is better known as a composer of operas, most notably the masterpiece “Giselle”.
Have you yet guessed the name of this song? It is “O Holy Night”, or more properly known as “Cantique de Noel”.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hears the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
In 1847 a commissioner of wines, and an occasional poet from a little town near Avignon, France was asked by his parish priest to write a new poem for Christmas.
The man did so en route to Paris on a business trip. His name was Placide Cappeau. His Parisian friends were also friend of the composer M. Adam, hence the collaboration between the author and the composer.
The song made its debut on Christmas Eve 1847 in Cappeau’s home town of Roquemaure. It became an instant success and was widely popular.
The Church in France tried to suppress it. One Bishop attacked it for its “lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion”. That was, in my opinion, a rather glib judgement.
In fact the Church opposed the “Cantique de Noel” on darker grounds.
One reason was the belief that Cappeau was a social radical. We sing a paraphrase of the text, as a result of which, some of his radicalism gets muted. A direct translation of part of the second stanza reads thus
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
That’s radical gospel! Little wonder then that Bishops, amongst others did not care for the song.
The other reason for the attempted suppression of the song was based in a false rumour that Alphonse Adam was Jewish. That was not true, but the Church’s anti-semitism could not countenance the idea that a song about the birth of a Jewish child to a Jewish mother should have a Jewish composer.
By 1855 the song had been translated or paraphrased into English. The version we know is by a Massachusetts Unitarian Minister, John Sullivan Dwight. He was an abolitionist, and the song became popular in the anti-slavery movement, particularly because of these lines.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease
One hundred and fifty six years on.
There are still many slaves throughout the world, including sex slaves in our own country.
There is still much oppression throughout the world, including the oppression of the poor in these United States.
Placide Cappeau’s song, set brilliantly to Aldolphe Adam’s music reminds us that the celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ should be more than occasion for merry-making – good and necessary as that it.
The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and the teachings of his life call us again to join in God’s work as announced by the Jewish prophets, and made clear in “this word made flesh”.
This great work of God was clearly understood by Placide Cappeau. It is this: that God is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
That is one of the many meanings of Christmas. Perhaps it is the most vital.