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The Story behind 'O Holy Night'

Updated on December 12, 2014

O Holy Night

O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining- it is the birth of our dear savior King. What beautiful words and who does not love this song! It is a heartfelt Christmas hymn that is used in many Churches during the Christmas season. Just hearing the song sends chills down my spine and who does not get a tear in their eye from it. This is the story on how it came to be.

'O Holy Night' started out in France in 1847 and eventually made its way around the world. A man by the name of Placide Cappeau was born in France in 1808. He was eight years old when he had a gunshot would to his hand that caused it to be amputated. he enjoyed the arts and was a fine journalist. His father was a merchant who sold wines and spirits. Placide studied law but eventually followed after his father and became a wine merchant and had a small place in France.

He was known throughout more for his writings than for being a Church attendant. One day in 1847 his local parish priest asked him if he would write a poem that could be used for the Christmas Eve service. He thought since it would be used during mass the poem ought to be religious and also focus on the day- Christmas.

While he was on traveling in a stagecoach on his way to Paris, Placide considered the request from his priest request for a poem for mass. He envisioned himself being a witness to the birth of Jesus. While dreaming and using thoughts that he was present at the birth, he began to write the poem. He used the gospel of Luke- the nativity story to help him write.

He called his poem "Cantique de Noel" which means "Song of Christmas'. He had a wonderful feeling about his poem and felt it should have music added to it. So he turned to a friend of his by the name of Adolphe Charles Adams, who was a trained musician.

Adams was a classical musician and he was of the Jewish faith He was also from Paris and was born in 1803. As a young boy he began to show musical talent and when he became 18 he decided to take his talent seriously and to study music at a Paris conservatoire.

With Adams being of the Jewish faith, the poem represented to him something that he did not celebrate or believe in- that Jesus was the son of God. Yet, being a friend he the poem went to work to help his friend by composing music to go with the words. The song turned out great and both Placide and the parish priest were impressed. The song was preformed during the Christmas Eve service for the congregation.

The French people loved the carol. However Placide left the church and became a part of the socialist movement. It was then that the leaders of the church discovered that Adams was not of the Catholic faith, but was a Jew. After this the Church banned the song from its liturgy throughout France. They claimed it was unfit for use due to the lack of spirit of religion from Adams. Even through the church tried to 'bury' the song the people of France kept singing it.

About ten years later an American Unitarian minister by the name of John Sullivan Dwight was living in Massachusetts. He was young and when he would try to preach he would get nervous and have panic attacks. These attacks forced him to use his talents by writing and publishing a book called 'Dwight's Journal of Music'

For the book he searched for new material and he found Cantique de Noel. He fell in love with the song and the message that it conveyed. He translated the song into English. He especially loved the lines of the 3rd verse -'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'. The words Dwight felt conveyed how he felt for the slavery in the South and he felt it needed to be heard. Owning a magazine, he published it and 'O Holy Night' became a favorite of people in America quickly.

In time the Catholic church in France began letting the song back into the church's service after fighting broke out between the French and Germany armies. Legend has it that during a break in the fighting a French soldier began singing ''Cantique de Noel." Both the French and German soldiers were so moved. Then the german soldiers started singing one of their own hymns. We are told that the fighting stopped for twenty four hours while all the soldiers took a break to honor Christmas Day.

First time to be heard on the radio

In 1906 a man by the name of Reginald Fessenden who was a chemist (who formerly worked with Thomas Edison) was working on an experiment. He used a generator with a microphone and spoke into it, hence the first time that a person was able to have their voice transported over the radio. It was Broadcast from Massachusetts. He began by reading the Christmas story over the airwaves.

After he finished his story he picked up his violin and began playing 'O Holy Night'. It was the first time a man's visit was broadcast on air and the first time a song was sent over the airwaves. The broadcast of the show ended after the carol was finished.


O Holy Night

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!


Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim


  • Four country music artists have charted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts with renderings of "O Holy Night": John Berry- at 55 in 1996 and at 63 in 1998. Martina McBride- charted on five separate occasions, peaking at No. 74 in 1997, No. 67 in 1998, No. 49 in 1999, No. 57 in 2000, and No. 41 in 2001. Josh Gracin-charted at 59 in 2006. Edens Edge's charted at 59 in 2012.
  • The song has also been recorded through the years by many notable singers such as : Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Martina McBride, Lettermen and Celine Dion.




O Holy Night- With Lyrics

O Holy Night Quiz


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    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 2 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Thank you for the research you have done on this hymn. It is really beautiful and one of my favourites. So often, even today, the church try to squash a good hymn, but they never succeed.

    • cind23 profile image
      Author

      Cynthia 2 years ago

      Thank you, Hendrika for your kind words. I teach CCD also and I love to be able to pass things like this on to them. Love this song

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