What makes “O Holy Night” such an iconic and beloved Christmas carol? A wide range of people have recorded it, including Mariah Carey, Josh Groban, David Phelps, Ella Fitzgerald, Weezer, and my personal favorite, The Reign of Kindo.
No matter which version of the song you like best, the consensus opinion is that this song is challenging to sing. “O Holy Night” spans an octave plus a fifth in range and each section contains long, sustained notes. This is why it is typically sung as a solo and not as a choral arrangement. When you hear an excellent rendition of this song it seems ethereal, yet the lyrics invoke a sense of humbleness. The world is weary. The King of kings lays in a lowly manger. Jesus knows our weakness. Long lay the world in sin. Even the actions the songwriter asks the listener to take are humble: fall on your knees, behold your King, before him lowly bend. The song is cosmic in its scope but also deeply personal and intimate. I believe I’m wired to be a bit more melancholy than the average person, so this is exactly the type of song I want to hear during Advent: a song that encourages me to fall on my knees in awe, to rejoice that in all my trials I have a friend, to love others, and proclaim the power and glory of God.
The song itself didn’t actually start as a song. The original piece was written in French (Minuit Chrétiens) in the 1840s by Placide Cappeau. Cappeau, who lived in the small French town of Roquemaure, was more known for his poetry than his church attendance. He was asked by the local priest to write a Christmas poem to commemorate the renovation of a church organ. After composing the poem, Cappeau asked Adolphe Adam, a popular composer, to set the lines to music. History claims the song titled “Cantique de Noel” debuted at a midnight mass in 1847, where it was sung by the opera singer Emily Laurey. It quickly became a favorite among French congregations.
However, the song was soon surrounded by controversy; it was rumored that the songwriter, Cappeau, walked away from the church due to his socialist leanings, and church leaders in France discovered that the composer, Adam, was Jewish. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it. A decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
John Sullivan Dwight translated the words from French to English in 1855. Dwight, who founded “Dwight’s Journal of Music,” was an abolitionist who identified with the lines of the third verse:
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;
and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Dwight published an updated version in the “Journal of Music,” which propelled the song to popularity in the United States, particularly in the North during the Civil War.
One of the main reasons why this song is my favorite is that it makes me feel. The complex music, the long high notes, and the even higher note at the end of the song all combine with deeply theological lyrics to make for a truly outstanding piece of music. The song allows me to think of the personal nature of grace applied to me, the chief of sinners. Similar to how God’s love does not keep us stagnant but asks that we grow, the song calls us to proclaim the message of the gospel so that oppression in all forms in all places would cease as all fall at His feet. The world waited for such a long time for the Savior to appear and here he finally is—God in the flesh—to redeem the whole creation.
The line, “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices; For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn” has always resonated with me, but even more so in recent years. We live in weary times and I need something to give me hope in these dark days. Not only do weary souls long to feel their worth in light of the birth of Jesus but the world itself is groaning with anticipation of Jesus’ second arrival. “O Holy Night” finds us in the “already but not yet” part of the biblical story. Jesus, in all our trials born to be our friend, who intimately knows our collective and individual weaknesses, is the same King to whom we give all the praise and honor and glory. Let us rejoice and sing “O Holy Night” at the top of our lungs. If Weezer can do it, so can you.