Oh Holy Night-an Unlikely Composition Makes History

o-holy-night

All who know me know that Christmas is my absolute favorite time of the year. Being a native of the snowy mid-western state of Indiana I cherish the memories and traditions of Christmas past and have tried my best to create similar memories for our family in Las Vegas, sans the snow and cold temps. For me Christmas was always ushered in by the seasonal carols-I knew the holiday was close when the radio began playing Joy to the World, White Christmas, Silver Bells, Silent Night, and all the carols that have survived through the decades.  But no carol moves me to this day more so than Oh Holy Night. Of all the carols this song does more to transport me back to what must have been a magical night all over the earth as God the Son and Creator became flesh to dwell among us. This carol has been covered by the best voices in the world, each adding their own touch, from Celine to Groban to Crosby, and my favorite, Transiberian Orchestra.  There is no carol that sets the mood for Christmas among believers more than Oh Holy Night.

What many people don’t know is how God orchestrated the most unlikely characters and unusual circumstances in the composition of this song.  The lyrics were written by a man who would later walk away from the church to join the socialist party, and the music by a Jewish man who did not believe in Jesus the Messiah.  I was fascinated when I first read this story.

Placide Cappeau was a well known poet and commissioner of wines in France but not so well known as a church attender.  It was in 1847 that the priest of his parish asked him to compose a poem of religious origin that would be appropriate for Christmas Mass. Cappeau relied on texts from the Gospel of Luke and his imagination of what that blessed night must have been like and penned the words to Cantique de Noel on a stage coach ride to Paris. Upon its completion, Cappeau was so moved by his own composition that he decided these words should be put to music but music was not his strength.  So he called upon his good friend Adolphe Charles Adam, equally well known for his musical compositions.  Adolphe was Jewish. It was miraculous how the words to Cappeau’s poem moved Adam so much that he composed perhaps the most beloved and recognizable hymn about an event he did’t celebrate and personally didn’t believe in. Oh Holy Night, words by a socialist and music by a Jew!

The score was performed for Mass just three weeks later and quickly accepted across France.  However its fame was short lived as Cappeau joined the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church discovered that a Jew composed the music.  Oh Holy Night was banned for lack of content and musical taste for decades after, that is until John Sullivan Dwight, a struggling Unitarian minister and publisher of Dwight’s Journal of Music found the words and was moved by the composition.  You see, Dwight was an abolitionist and when he saw the lyrics, “for the slave is our brother”, he was inspired. It was Dwight who translated the lyrics into English and first introduced it to America.  But wait, there’s more!

In 1906, six decades after the song was composed by the most unlikely sources, another miracle was about to take place. The alternator-trasmitter had recently been developed allowing voice to be transmitted to ships and newspaper publishers by radio waves produced as a result of the high spinning alternator. Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden, a former employee for Thomas Edison, first tested this new radio device by reading the first few verses from the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter two. Fessenden, also a musician, then picked up his violin and played Cantique de Noel, Oh Holy Night!  This beloved Christmas carol made history and is acknowledged as the very first song ever broadcast over radio, and all at the hands of a socialist, a Jew, a failed Unitarian minister and an Anglican through the orchestration of events by an all inclusive God!  Awe inspiring and yet, not at all surprising-He is after all, God!

Christmas is all about inclusion, and in light of recent events revolving around police actions and injustices, what a better time to reflect on the commonalities of our races and status and not the differences. Dwight, being a witness to the evils of slavery, fell in love with the lyric “change shall He bring for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease“. Paul would write in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ”.  You see, if you read the story carefully you will see that the young are represented by Mary, thought to be no more than fourteen years old when she gave birth, and the old are represented by Simeon, who would die shortly after seeing his Messiah. The rich are represented by the Wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Savior, and the poor by Jesus own parents who could barely afford doves for their sacrifice at the temple. The women are represented by the Theotokos, Mary, the bearer of God and her cousin Elizabeth who bore John the Baptist, while the men are represented by Joseph, a hard working everyday man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. And the outcast are represented by the shepherds, the lowest of the low deemed indispensable enough to guard the flocks against bears and other predators. This was God’s plan all along-unity through love and a common hope and equal inheritance.  We are to blame for creating the racial, societal and even the religious divisions among us. God’s gift of His son was to unite us and reconcile all of us, each different but all the same in Christ, to Him.

So this Christmas season, when you hear or sing this beautiful and beloved hymn Oh Holy Night, I want to challenge you to consider each other as you sing, the poor, the homeless, the black or the white, the Republican or Democrat, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Atheist, the immigrant-those who would never come to mind normally, and imagine a time and a place two thousand years ago when the world for one night was at peace and as one as they ushered in with great celebration and Holy awe the creator of us all, the Christ child Jesus.  Surely, it must have been one holy night!  When you do, I can promise you that the spirit of Christmas past present and to come will dwell richly within you and the world around you will seem just a little less hostile, and each other a little less different.  God Bless you and Merry Christmas.

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