In my previous post I didn’t have many good things to say about the Christmas song, Mary Did You Know. So I thought I’d balance things out by reflecting on my favourite carol.

O Holy Night was written in 1847 by two very unlikely songwriting partners.

Placide Cappeau was an irreligious French wine merchant and part-time poet. He also had one hand, having lost his right one in a shooting accident. In 1843, he was commissioned to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the recent renovation of the local parish church organ in his home town.

Cappeau was happy to do it but, being an irregular church attender, he had to reread the gospel of Luke to brush up on the nativity story. Nonetheless, he completed it in time for a reading at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. That’s why, in French, the piece was called Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) after the opening line in the first stanza:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour, 
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin,
And to end the wrath of His Father. 

The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.

Some years later, Adolphe Adam, a French composer best known for the opera Giselle, set Minuit, chrétiens to music. Adam was a Jew and not in the habit of celebrating Christmas, but he composed the most exquisite score for Chapeau’s lyrics, creating a Christmas song that became immediately popular across France.

But very few people knew the song was written by a Jew and a one-handed, non-religious liquor store owner.


It took almost a decade for the Cappeau/Adam song to be translated from French into English by Rev John Sullivan Dwight, and it’s his 1855 version that we still sing today under the title O Holy Night.

Dwight’s version is lovely, but being a Transcendentalist, he sometimes veils the radical message that Cappeau had distilled from reading Luke’s Gospel. Indeed, Dwight whitewashes what some might consider to be Cappeau’s rather left-wing sensibilities.

The line Dwight translated as “Fall on your knees” was “People, kneel down, await your deliverance.”

And Cappeau’s middle verse there was a sound rebuke to the bourgeois that concluded this way:

The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, 

It is to your pride that God preaches.

Having humbled the wealthy, Cappeau then celebrates the emergence of the proletariat by imagining a new brotherhood of humankind:

The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open. 

He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those whom iron had chained.

In the end, rather than calling on Christians to remain on their knees, Cappeau calls them to rise up and embrace deliverance and redemption:

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer

That sounds like revolutionary talk to me!

I think the reason I like this song and the story behind it is that Placide Cappeau came to the nativity story with fresh eyes. A non-devout, irregular churchgoer, he saw the birth of Christ as the beginning of a radical new social structure in which the last shall be first and the first last.

Less concerned about angels and drummer boys, his lyrics focus on a new order, one that is even acknowledged by pagan kings from the east.

How could he miss it!  After reading the radical songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon in the early chapters of Luke, Cappeau would have eventually got to Luke 4, where the adult Christ inaugurates his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk  4:18-19)

Coming fresh to Luke’s Gospel, and feeling free from the strictures of polite church behaviour, allowed Placide Cappeau to capture the true essence of the Incarnation.

Read his original lyrics to Midnight, Christians and you’ll see how well he captured it:

Here are Cappeau’s original lyrics in full:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,

When God as man descended unto us

To erase the stain of original sin

And to end the wrath of His Father.

The entire world thrills with hope

On this night that gives it a Saviour.

People, kneel down, await your deliverance.

Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith

Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,

As in ancient times a brilliant star

Guided the Oriental kings there.

The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;

O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,

It is to your pride that God preaches.

Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:

The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.

He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

Love unites those whom iron had chained.

Who will tell Him of our gratitude,

For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer

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