“O Holy Night” has long been one of my most-loved Christmas carols. Three years ago, I did a little digging to discover how this beautiful hymn came to be. The story is almost as good as the song, so in case you missed this original post in 2021, I’m sharing it again now.
Years ago, back when I thought Spotify was a stain remover, Annesley’s not-yet mother-in-law—a gal who loves music more than almost anybody we know—gave us what might be the best Christmas gift ever: A CD on which she had burned O Holy Night.
We heard Carrie Underwood. Pentatonix. Bing Crosby. And 24 more incredible voices—each one seemingly better than the artists before and after. That one disc is the reason we still have a CD player; we play the thing on repeat every year. Every line—from the thrill of hope for the weary soul to the promise of an end to oppression—feels weightier and more glorious with each new Christmas season.
And you can imagine, when we got our hands on a copy of Stories behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas a few weeks ago, which song we read about first…
The “O Holy Night” story begins in France in 1847, when a wine merchant—a fellow known more for his poetry than his church-going—was asked by a parish priest to write a poem for Christmas mass.
Intuiting that the poem should be religious, wine guy turned to the gospel of Luke. He tried to picture himself in the narrative; what would it have been like to be present at Jesus’ birth? Inspired, he quickly finished the piece and then, “moved by his own work” (I loved that line from the book), he decided his words were not simply words; they were lyrics.
Not being musically gifted himself, wine guy tapped his pal Adolph, a brilliant and already famous composer. Music guy went to work and the result—a song called Cantique de Noel—became a smash hit in France…
…until wine guy threw his lot in with the Socialists (which did not sit well with the Catholics) and it was revealed that music guy was a Jew. Sensing a sticky situation, the church banned the song. Cantique de Noel was effectively cancelled.
Except that the French people loved it. And kept singing it. So much so that, a decade later, a reclusive American writer—a Harvard Divinity grad who would have been a minister but for the debilitating panic attacks that kept him out of the pulpit—discovered the song and translated it for an American audience. O Holy Night took off on our side of the pond and, in 1906, it became the first song ever broadcast on radio.
You can read the whole tale in the book; author Ace Collins provides lots more details—like places and dates and actual names—in a chapter that’s nine pages long. I just had to share a quick recap.
Because only God could take these particular people—a poet who knew wine but not the true Vine, a composer who didn’t call Jesus “Messiah,” and a minister so crippled by anxiety that he could not go out in public—and use them to create such a powerful, enduring song.
And only God can take us—with our doubts and our fears and our messy, upside-down lives—and call us Beloved.
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!
Merry Christmas, Friends.
May all that is within us praise His holy name!