Beloved Christmas carols: O Holy Night

Isn’t it hard to believe that such a beloved Christmas carol as O Holy Night was actually banned by the French church for a time? It seems some of its leaders looked askance at both the poet and the composer.

A parish priest in Roquemaure, France, asked a local wine merchant and amateur poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem in the fall of 1847. Cappeau found inspiration and wrote his poem “Minuit, Chr├ętiens” on his way to Paris for business. When he arrived, he took it to a friend of friends, the operatic composer Adolphe Adam. Adam wrote the music a few days later. When Cappeau returned to Roquemaure, he gave both the poem and the music to the priest. The new carol was performed for the first time at the Christmas Eve midnight Mass that same month.

Although on good terms with the local parish priest, Cappeau had raised the ire of the local church hierarchy for his radical political opinions. As the words translated “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother” indicate, he opposed slavery and social inequality. That made him a seem a threat to the regime of King Louis Philippe, who was deposed by a revolution in 1848.

The churchmen also looked askance at Adam, a composer of opera, regarded at the time as light entertainment and not serious music. For some reason, they thought he was Jewish, too. How could such a team possibly produce music worthy of the Christian religion? So they attempted to ban the new song.

It is indeed all too easy to fall into the trap of wrapping one’s political leanings in a cloak of religion, which makes it difficult to see either religious issues or political issues clearly. Perhaps this opposition persuaded Cappeau, whose attendance at church had been sporadic anyway, to give up Christianity entirely and adopt even more extreme political and social views.

Others, outside the narrow confines of the church leadership, had no trouble finding the true spirit of Christianity in O Holy Night. Either they didn’t know Cappeau’s social views, saw no contradiction between them and the Christian gospel, or didn’t care about the controversy. The carol became known all over France and by 1855 had been published in London. Eventually it was translated into many different languages.

The American music critic John Sullivan Dwight provided the best-known English translation. Supposedly he, too, published it in 1855, although there is reason to doubt that date. Dwight, a Unitarian minister, shared Cappeau’s strong opposition to slavery. In abolitionist Massachusetts, it would have been difficult to find anyone who thought the views in either Cappeau’s poem or Dwight’s translation dangerously radical or unChristian.

As widely loved as O Holy Night has become, it has not found a place in very many hymnals. Perhaps the fact that Adam was used to writing for professional singers and not congregations adequately explains that fact. Certainly soloists sing it in churches all over the world, and many of the world’s best singers have recorded it. How could anyone get through Christmas without hearing it at least once?

Source: Hymns and Carols

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