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The Amazing Story Behind O Holy Night Carol Hymn

O Holy Night Carol

O Holy Night Christmas Carols

O Holy Night is an incredible poem requested by an unrecalled parish priest in France, penned down by a poet that later left the church, and music composed by a Jewish musician.

It later crawled to America as a tool for slavery abolition and proclamation of the birth of Christ the Saviour. And now, it has become one of the most beautiful and inspired Christmas pieces of music ever created.

O Holy Night is a popular carol song also known as “Cantique de Noël” because it was originally written in French.

O Holy Night is one of the well-known Christmas carols around the world. Indeed, it is among the popular Christmas hymns like Joy to the world, O little town of Bethlehem, and many other lovely carol hymns.

The O Holy Night lyrics and music comes with an amazing power that can penetrate listeners’ and singers’ emotion. The carol has that unique power to lift the soul and bring tears to the eyes.

In fact, the carol is unbelievable bringing Christian believers to their knees or to their feet with applause. And up to date, O Holy Night carol continues to inspire people around the globe.

This post is dedicated to “O Holy Night” and we will look into the history behind the carol hymn. As to start with, let us find out who wrote the Christmas carol O Holy Night.

Who Wrote O Holy Night?

The O Holy Night lyrics and music came to life as a result of the joint efforts of two friends, Placide Cappeau and Adolphe Charles. This is unbelievable as the two by some perspectives may not be seen as Christian or even religious.

The words of this wonderful carol were written as a poem by Placide Cappeau, a French poet. He was born to the family of Mathieu Cappeau on October 25th, 1808 in Roquemaure (Gard).

His family is well known for vinification and cooperage business and he could have been part of the business. However, he started an academic life when he could not follow the family business as a result of a hand incident.  

Young Placide Cappeau encountered a gunshot from a friend that led to the amputation of his hand. The incident happened to him at the tender age of eight while he was playing with Brignon who was his friend.

While the two were playing, Brignon (also a young child) was handling a gun and unintentionally shot Placide Cappeau in the hand. This resulted in the amputation of Placide Cappeau’s left hand.

Brignon’s father stood for his child and supported Placide financially by paying half of his tuition fee.

Placide Cappeau Education

Placide Cappeau enrolled at a town school despite the gunshot incident that claimed his hand. He was later admitted into the Collège Royal d’Avignon.

At college, he did not allow his disability to limit him. In fact, in 1825, he received the first prize in drawing at the school.

Thereafter, he studied A level in literature known as baccalauréat littéraire in Nîmes. After that, Placide Cappeau went to Paris and studied law. As a result, he secured a license to practice law in 1831.

Life of Placide Cappeau

Placide Cappeau later follows in his father’s footsteps by engaging in the wine and spirit business.

However, he did not get rid of his passion for literature. He sometimes writes verses in either French or Langue d’oc which is the regional dialect.

Among others, Placide Cappeau is well known for his poem “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure colennelle” he wrote in French. That poem means “Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour” in English. Specifically, the poem that gave birth to the “O Holy Night” carol.

Also, he wrote other poems like Le château de Roquemaure, this particular poem was published in 1876. In addition, his other writings include “La poésie”, “Le papillon”, “Le roi de la fève”, and “La rose”.

Placide Cappeau lived and died at the age of 68 in Roquemaure on August 8th, 1877.

What is the Story behind the ‘O Holy Night Carol

The O Holy night Carol story started in 1847 when Cappeau’s community parish priest, Father Petitjean asked him to write a poem for the Christmas mass.

Specifically, the parish priest asked Placide Cappeau to write a poem to celebrate Christmas and the church organ in Southern France that was renovated.

Placide is not a regular church attendee and he was definitely known more as a poet in his community. So, this was an honour for him to share his poet with the Church for the glory of the Lord.

Initially, he was sceptical about the task. Also, he was so disturbed about what to write to live up to the task.

However, he found inspiration from the Gospel of Luke on a hard carriage ride to Paris. So he used the story from the holy book as his guide and envisaged the birth of Christ.

On his journey to Paris between Mâcon and Dijon, he visualised himself as a witness to the birth of Christ. Specifically, he was consumed by what it looked like to witness the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

As a result, the wonder of that glorious moment flowed through him, and he composed the poem “Cantique de Noel”. The “Cantique de Noel” is a French phrase that means “Song of Christmas” in English.  

The Music for the ‘O Holy Night’

Adolphe Charles Adam Music for the 'O Holy Night'

When the word of the poem “Cantique de Noel” was written down, Cappeau was moved. He believed that the poem will be powerful if used for a song rather than a poem.

Also, he believes a good musician is needed to do justice for the poem and set it into music. And because he lacked music proficiency, he appealed to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adam to set his poem into music.

Adolphe Charles Adams (1803-1856) is a French-trained classical musician, composer, and music critic with Jewish ancestry. He is a prolific composer with several works in opera and ballet.

Cappeau’s request was an unusual one to Adams. All the same, Adams was unwilling to honour his friend’s request because of his Jewish faith.

As a Jew, he was less concerned about the celebration of the Christian saviour and Christmas. Absolutely, people with Jew faith don’t accept Jesus as the son of God.

In spite of that, Adam was touched by Cappeau’s poem and subsequently accepted his friend’s request to write music for the poem. Accordingly, Adam wrote original music for the “Cantique de Noel” now known as O Holy Night.

The Holy Night Music Score and First Performance

Adam took his time to satisfactorily finish the original music score he matched Cappeau’s poem with. The music score was unique and definitely different from what has been heard before.

Both Cappeau and Father Petitjean, the Cappeau’s community parish priest, liked Adam’s final music score for the poem.

Three weeks later, the song was premiered at the church of Roquemaure in 1847. It was performed for the congregation during the parish Midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

How Church Restrained “O Holy Night”

After the first performance of “Cantique de Noel” in 1847, churches in France and French people loved this new inspiring hymn. 

In fact, O Holy Night became a favourite song for choirs to sing at Christmas time and carol in Catholic churches across France.

But something different happened when Cappeau left the Catholic Church for the socialist movement.

The church leaders were furious about the poet’s action. Also, they learned that the music to the “Cantique de Noel” by Cappeau was composed by a Jewish man.

Combining the two together, the Catholic hierarchy of France of that time considered “O Holy Night” as unsuitable for church services.

So they banned the singing of this wonderful hymn in the church and declared it was too secular. Because they believed it did not have musical taste and totally lacked the spirit of religion.

People were actually concerned about how the beautiful hymn with good worshipful lyrics like “Cantique de Noel” (now O Holy Night) could ever be considered secular.

However, the church’s higher hierarchy had spoken, and “Cantique de Noel” (now O Holy Night) was removed from the songs the Catholic church used for the traditional service.

How The Hymn Find Its Way to America?

In spite of the heads of the French Catholic church order, French people did not let their love for the song die. They continue singing it outside the official approval of the church like at homes and in social gatherings.

So ten years later, after they had banned the song from the catholic church in France, O Holy Night found its way to America. It happened that John Sullivan Dwight who is an American abolitionist heard the song and loved it right away.

John Sullivan Dwight loved the message the lyrics of the song conveyed and its grand, soaring score. He was touched with the “Truly He taught us to love one another” and “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother” verses.

In particular, stanza three of the song moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. And he felt that the amazing Christmas song with sweet melody and inspiring words needed to be heard in America.

Surely, the lyrics of that stanza three aligned with Dwight’s opinion about slavery in the South. So he translated the text of “Cantique de Noel” from French to English and named it “O Holy Night”.

Thereafter, he published the English version of “O Holy Night” in his magazine for American audiences to see. Consequently, “O Holy Night” was loved by Americans especially the North audience where it was famous as an anthem of freedom.

O Holy Night Lyrics (The Full Text)

1 O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared 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 hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

2 Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the Wise Men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our Friend.

He knows our need— to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!

3 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 pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

Who Has Sung O Holy Night

Different singers and people across the world have sung and performed this amazing song. Also, there are different arrangements and the music scores of the song are in different keys.

In addition, O Holy Night has numerous recorded versions and has left a huge footprint among singers in religious, classical, and popular music over time.

For instance, popular musicians like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, John Edward Berry and several others have performed and recorded the song.

Enjoy the performance of O Holy Night by Joseph Oparamanuike with Notre Dame Folk Choir and Leah Martin on the piano at the 2021 Gold and Blue Christmas Concert.

At Phamox Music, we go all out for exactness and honesty. For this purpose, if by any means you found any possible glitch, be it factual, editorial or something that we need to update, kindly contact us.


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