Placide Cappeau was a local wine merchant in the small French town of Roquemaure. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it shocked Placide when the local priest asked him to pen a poem for the upcoming Christmas mass. Although not a committed Christian, Cappeau was clearly honored to share his talents with the church.
While traveling to Paris on business, he began to work on the priest’s request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. As he allowed the words of Luke 2 to sink in, something deep inside moved him: the significance of the birth of the Christ child became clear.
In that scripture, he saw the climactic scene of God’s eternal story about to unfold…he recognized how sin had engulfed humankind, leaving all humanity in despair and deserving of punishment like any defiant child. For humankind to have any meaning, any peace, and any future rested solely on God’s loving intervention and forgiveness. For the first time in his life, Cappeau realized that all of God’s hope to restore humanity to the glorious relationship that God intended broke through in this one special, holy night.
But he also realized that this birth was only the beginning. It was every day after the birth that truly made the difference. This child would grow to teach the world a better way…a way of love and peace. The significance of Christmas was not just that God so loved the world that he sent his only son; but also that we might so love the world the way God does… and that we would live a life of love that would stand up for the poor, feed the hungry, fight injustice, and struggle against inequality. This way of sacrificial love will always lead to a better life…even at the cost of this life. In fact, it did cost the Christ his life.
Although the meaning of Christmas was now clear to Cappeau, something even more significant happened to him. Thoughts of standing with the poor shepherds as the angels appeared and trying to sense the glory of the Lord shining even on his face, he realized that the message was not only for all of humanity, but for him too, “I am bringing you (yes you) good news of great joy for all the people: to you (yes you) is born this day in the city of David…a Savior…a Messiah…a Lord!” The meaning of Christmas began to make a change in his heart.
On December 3, 1847, about halfway to Paris, Cappeau received the inspiration for the poem. By the time he arrived in Paris his poem, “Minuit, Chretiens”—“Midnight, Christians”– had been completed. The literal translation of the first verse is: “Midnight, Christians, It is the solemn hour. Where the Man-God descended to us…to erase the original blot…and to stop the ire of his Father. The whole world quivers with hope…in this night which it gives a Savior.”
So moved by his revelation and creation, he immediately took the poem to his composer friend, Adolphe Adam who was enjoying enormous popularity with over 80 stage and opera works. Cappeau’s lyrics, however, challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything else in his career because the words spoke of a day he didn’t celebrate and the birth of a man he did not view as the Son of God. Nevertheless, Adam quickly went to work and created an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Just three weeks later Cappeau’s and Adam’s song, “Canteque de Noel” premiered at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1847.
The intrinsic beauty of “Cantique de Noel” led it to become one of the most beloved Christmas songs in all of France. And almost as quickly, the song was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church–not because of the nature or subject of the song, but because of the reputations of the poet and composer. Cappeau’s changed heart led him to adopt some of the more extreme political and social views of his era, such as opposition to inequality, slavery, injustice, and other kinds of oppression. And when the composer, Adolphe Adam, was discovered to be Jewish as well as a secular musician, “Cantique de Noel” was deemed 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 it was not long before an American writer–John Sullivan Dwight—translated “Canteque de Noel” into a powerful English version called “O Holy Night.”
When he did, a transformation was begun in him as he discovered something very powerful in the words that led him and many American people to rally behind the movement to abolish slavery through the freeing story of the birth of Christ. “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.”
Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, “O Holy Night” has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world and has become one of the most popular spiritual songs, even among a secular audience. Be it clear however, it is not the song that changes people, but the story that the song sings about.
Requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by an unchurched poet, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior, [i] ‘O Holy Night’ itself is the story of Christmas: God came for all, not just the church, not just the Christian, not just the ones who think they are right. God came for everyone because everyone is lost to sin, and everyone is in need of a savior.
But the real power in ‘O Holy Night,’ as well as the Christmas story, is in its call for everyone to respond: In the first verse …
“Fall on your knees, O hear the angel’s voices”
Listen…Our savior has come! No matter how difficult the burdens of life are, God has come near…to face the fire and trials of life with us…restoring our weary souls. If we would only bend our knee and allow Christ to be our king, a new day begins for each of us…our every need will be met…our every weakness will be strengthened…our every breath will have meaning.
Finally, the climatic final verse gives us the glorious and powerful vision of a creation with God as king! “Love, not power, would be supreme; peace will prevail; God’s justice would be our justice; and oppression will give way to ultimate brotherhood and sisterhood. From this day forward, Christ is Lord! O Praise His name forever!”
The Christmas story has indeed transformed people for thousands of years.
And it all begins with one night…one Holy Night. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
[i] Adapted from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” for educational purposes only, from Zondervan.