In 1847 a parish in France had just finished restoring their organ and the Priest wanted to have a special musical number during the midnight mass on Christmas eve that year. The Priest asked a local poet, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, to write the words for a new song. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was not only a poet, he was the commissionaire of wines and more of an atheist than an active believer. He was honored by the request and he went to work by studying the gospel of Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus Christ and imagining what it would have been like to be present and witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The Poem was titled “Cantique de Noel”.
The poet asked a well know classical musician, Adolphe Charles Adams, to write the music for the song. The request to write music for a Christian song was and interesting request since he was Jewish and did not believe that Jesus’ birth was divine, but he went to work on the project and the result was performed for the first time by an opera singer, Emily Laurey, on Christmas Eve 1847 in an obscure Parish in France.
The new Christmas carol was an instant hit among the French people and was often performed in Catholic Christmas services until the heads of the Catholic Church found out the words were written by an atheist and the music by a Jew. It was banned from church services; however, the French people loved it so much that they continued to sing it anyway.
O Holy Night found its way to America thanks to the efforts of American Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight, he loved the song and wanted to bring it to America. He was also an abolitionist and thought that the third verse was supportive of the importance of banning slavery: "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." Dwight translated “Cantique de Noel” and called it “O Holy Night”. The Christmas carol was particularly popular in the North during the Civil War.
The Christmas carol has another first in its history when on Christmas Eve 1906 Reginal Fessenden, a university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, was the first to broadcast his voice over the radio waves. Until that time the radio waves only carried the dots and dashes of Morse code. On that night professor Fessenden spoke into a microphone the words from Luke chapter 2 of the Savior’s birth and then he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night” which became the first song broadcast over the radio.
Quoting from the Beliefnet.com story:
“Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, "O Holy Night" has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of the entertainment industry's most recorded and played spiritual songs. This incredible work--requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior--has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created.”
I hope that we can all pause in our rush to buy presents, wrap them, and put them under the CHRISTmas tree that we will remember why we have this holiday. It is the birth of The Only Begotten son of Heavenly Father in the flesh, Jesus Christ that we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate his birth, his life, his atonement, and resurrection. We celebrate the love that he has for us and for the gift of his life that he gave to us that allows us to return to his presence and the presence of Heavenly Father as families if we will only have faith in him, repent of our sins, are baptized by those having authority to perform saving ordinances, make and keep covenants in the Lord’s house that will bind us together as families.
In the words of Tiny Tim from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” “God bless us everyone”; and from that jolly old elf himself: “Happy Christmas to all”.
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