O Holy Night…an abolitionist song?


O Holy Night or Cantique de Noel

Please listen to the song in French while you read this today. Look for “Minuet Chretiens” towards the bottom of the link. It is divine.

Do you ever wonder why certain stories and songs are passed down through the generations or how they came to be? There are sometimes fascinating histories behind their popularity.

I had some errands Monday morning. I usually listen to PBS in the car, but the topic of the day wasn’t really of interest to me. I started surfing and found someone talking about Christmas songs.

He began speaking about “O Holy Night” which happens to be one of the melodies that really move me. I stopped surfing the channels and started listening. That song originated in France. A local wine seller (commissionaire de vin) and part-time poet was asked by a priest to write a Christmas poem. He thought about it for awhile and was on a train to Paris when the inspiration for the poem came to him.

Once he jotted down the poem, he took it to a well known composer. The man on the radio said the composer was Jewish. Another web source says that his funeral notice states his funeral service was to be held in his own parish, so there is some question as to his religion.

The song made its debut at Christmas midnight mass in 1847.

Like so many religious leaders, the churchmen in the poet’s home town denounced the song. It wasn’t because of the lyrics or the melody. They decided that the reputations of the composer (purportedly Jewish) and the political views of lyricist tarnished the song and made it unacceptable to be a song worthy to be sung in church.

The lyricist was a freethinker. He was a social radical. He was described as a NON-Christian! His views were considered extreme. He favored equality and justice. He opposed slavery and all other forms of oppression. Just imagine singing a song in church written by a man like that!

Besides being thought to be Jewish, the extremely popular composer spent his time writing light operatic works and ballets. One French bishop denounced the song for its “lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion.”

How can any song have more of a “spirit of religion” than “O Holy Night’? Of course I will admit that I try to judge the message more than the messenger. I think I would have liked both the composer and the lyricist and not found the French bishop and his fellow priests to my liking. That’s why I say I am spiritual rather than religious. I guess I’m maybe, kinda, sorta, a bit of a free thinker myself.

Due to the “common folk” who really loved the song, it survived despite the condemnation of the clergy. It’s popularity spread throughout Europe and by 1855, it reached the publishing houses of London. By this time it had been translated into several languages. A Unitarian minister living at the Transcendalist community in Massachusetts authored the best known English translation of “O Holy Night” in 1855. It made its way into several songbooks of this period but not into church hymnals. 

Just like the original lyricist, the Unitarian minister held strong anti-slavery views. Although we seldom sing the entire song, two of the lines are

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

If you believe in synchronicity, supposedly the same year that the minister publlished this song was the same year that Massachusetts declared Christmas a legal holiday. There was more of a chance that the song would survive now that the good folk of Massachusetts deemed it permissable to celebrate the purported birth date of Jesus.

And…thankfully, it did survive.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 on Christmas Eve, supposedly a French soldier started singing “Cantique de Noel” as he jumped out of his trench. The Germans were moved by the song and didn’t fire upon the French.  One of them came out of his trench and sang a song written by Luther, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”  or ” Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her”.  Then the soldiers on both sides reportedly sang “Silent Night”, “Stille Nacht.” 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our songs could help us lay down our weapons permanently all over the world just as they did that one holy night on the battlefield?

The story of “O Holy Night” is not quite finished. It was the first song broadcast on live radio in 1906. It was sent to ships at sea on December 24 by a Canadian working in Massachusetts. The program started first with Handel’s “Largo” on the Ediphone. Next he played “O Holy Night” on a violin and sang the last verse. He ended by reading from the book of Luke. He and others who were with him wished everyone a Merry Christmas and said the program would be rebroadcast on New Year’s Eve. The original program was heard as far away as Virginia, but when it was rebroadcast a week later, it was heard as far away as the West Indies. This was quite an accomplishment in the days of early radio.

Christmas Eve will be here in two more days. May your holiday eve be filled with Christmas Spirit as you celebrate the holy night. Namaste Attic Annie

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