A brief history of ‘O Holy Night,’ the rousing Christmas hymn that garnered mixed reviews

1940s choir boys (ClassicStock/Alamy)1940s choir boys (ClassicStock/Alamy)

Twenty-six years ago, George W. Hunt, S.J., then editor in chief of America, wrote that “O Holy Night” was one of his favorites among Yuletide songs, modestly adding: “I’ve sung it countless times in choir (the dull second tenor part).” 

Our fond memories of “O Holy Night” are closely associated with the familiar English words translated from the original French by the Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight. Former director of the school at the 19th-century Brook Farm commune in Massachusetts, Dwight witnessed the conversion to Catholicism of a number of his fellow commune members, including Isaac Hecker—later a Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Paulist Fathers, the first religious community of priests created in North America.

“It might be a good thing to discard this piece whose popularity is becoming unhealthy,” one early critic wrote.

Whether this religious aura influenced Dwight’s 1855 translation is debatable. Undocumented legends have persistently surrounded “O Holy Night,” including that trench-fighting during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (or alternately, World War I) temporarily ceased while French troops sang the song to their opponents on Christmas Eve. 

A better documented, if generally overlooked, instance of the nurturing power of “O Holy Night” was reported in The Marine Corps Times in December 2004. In Fallujah, Iraq, to convey a message of love from home, the Rev. Ron Camarda, a Catholic priest and Marine Reserve major, sang “O Holy Night” at the bedside of a dying American Marine, wounded on a military mission.

Dwight’s healing, pious and inspiring words tell us, as Father Hunt reflected, about the light brought by the birth of Jesus. By 1885, Dwight’s lyrics had become so accepted that Hart Pease Danks, a choir leader and songwriter best remembered for the tear-jerking ballad “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” produced his own adaptation of them in a version entitled “O Night Divine.” In all fairness, the result could not be called an improvement. 

The hymn’s healing, pious and inspiring words tell us about the light brought by the birth of Jesus.

Yet the competing adaptations by John Sullivan Dwight and Danks shared the quality of being unilaterally upbeat, much unlike the original French song, “Minuit, Chrétiens” (“Midnight, Christians”), sometimes called “Cantique de Noël.” 

“Minuit, Chrétiens” began as a French poem by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant and leftist from Roquemaure, a small town in the Gard department of southern France. Educated by Jesuit instructors at the Collège Royal in Avignon, Cappeau penned the complex text in 1843 on the occasion of the restoration of stained glass at the local church in Roquemaure. 

His poem begins didactically, as if lecturing a crowd: “Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour when the Human God descended to us, to erase original sin and cease the wrath of his Father.” Cappeau addresses the “powerful” of his day, “proud with [their] grandeur,” ordering them to humble themselves before God. Nothing of this discourse survives in the dulcet verses of the “O Holy Night” we sing today.

Having ordered listeners to kneel, “Minuit, Chrétiens” then instructs them to rise, in a way similar to the later left-wing anthem “L’Internationale.”

Having ordered listeners to kneel, “Minuit, Chrétiens” then instructs them to rise, in a way similar to the later left-wing anthem “L’Internationale” (1871), which begins, “Arise ye damned of the earth.” Telling oppressed people to rise up is common in anthems, but “L'Internationale,” written by Eugène Pottier, may have partially reflected Placide Cappeau’s poem from a generation earlier. 

Adolphe Adam, a composer of secular operas, set “Minuit, Chrétiens” to music in 1843 or 1847, according to two differing contemporary accounts. But many elements in “Minuit, Chrétiens” did not sit well with church authorities. Soon after it was written, the 1848 Revolution broke out in France, and Adam worried some observers by calling “O Holy Night” a “religious Marseillaise,” referring to the 1792 song adopted as the Gallic national anthem. 

Official publications on Catholic music began to fret about the popularity of “Minuit, Chrétiens,” calling its lyricist a socialist drunk. An unfounded rumor also circulated that Adolphe Adam was Jewish, a falsehood that is repeated to this day in some English-language writings. In 1930, Vincent d’Indy, a noted Catholic royalist composer, wrote a text praising Richard Wagner and accusing “Jewish composers,” erroneously including Adam’s name on the list, of being interested only in financial gain. 

As early as 1864, the Revue de Musique Sacrée, a distinguished journal focusing on Catholic liturgical music, opined: 

Adolphe Adam’s [“Minuit, Chrétiens”] has been performed at many churches during Midnight Masses….it might be a good thing to discard this piece whose popularity is becoming unhealthy. It is sung in the streets, social gatherings, and at bars with live entertainment. It becomes debased and degenerated. The best would be to let it go its own way, far from houses of religion, which can do very well without it.

Further church criticism of the song itself focused on its militant tone and dubious theology. Some priests inquired what the lyric “Et de son Père arrêter le courroux” (“to cease the wrath of his Father”) referred to. Did “Minuit, Chrétiens” describe a vengeful Old Testament-style deity in contrast to Jesus? Perhaps because of these controversies, “Minuit, Chrétiens” was rarely included in Catholic hymnals.

French Catholic criticism continued after the Second World War, when the liturgical composer and musicologist Auguste Sérieyx chided choirs and organists who “make our churches resound with such hare-brained inspirations” as “Minuit, Chrétiens,” also chastising priests who “tolerate or encourage them.” 

French Catholic criticism continued after the Second World War, when one composer chided choirs who “make our churches resound with such hare-brained inspirations.”

Le Dictionnaire du Foyer Catholique (published in Paris in 1956) declared that the song “has been expunged from many dioceses due to the emphatic aspect of its lyrics as much as the music itself, and the contrast they provide with the holiday liturgy, so lovely and grand in its simplicity.” 

Yet despite these and other objections decrying the music of “Minuit, Chrétiens” as facile and banal, its international renown continued to grow. 

Ecclesiastical concern about the popularity and content of “Minuit, Chrétiens” was reproduced when it was imported to Canada in 1858 by Ernest Gagnon, a folklorist, composer and organist. Gagnon had attended a Midnight Mass the previous year at the Church of Saint-Roch in Paris, where a treble voice sang “Minuit, Chrétiens.” After Gagnon popularized the song in Canada, a tradition arose that parishes would select a soloist for the Midnight Mass performance of “Minuit, Chrétiens” from among local noteworthies as a special honor.

The song, originally written by Adam to be performed by a retired provincial soprano who had premiered one of his less successful operas in Paris, would likewise first be performed in Canada by a soprano singer. Only later did the song become the province of tenors and baritones. But Adam, as a composer of virtuoso operas, included some exposed high notes that challenge even professional singers, let alone well-meaning amateurs. As a result, congregations in Canada would customarily wait with trepidation for the climactic phrases of the song to see whether notes would be sung sharp or flat. 

There is no sign that Adolphe Adam expected he would be remembered principally for “Minuit, Chrétiens,” alongside the ballet “Giselle.” His 1857 memoirs do not even mention it. Yet for generations of “O Holy Night” listeners on Christmas Eve and beyond, he remains indelibly the composer of that one immortal and inspiring song. 

Further listening

The original song, “Minuit, Chrétiens,” in French: 

“O Holy Night” in English: 

In Swedish translation: 

And a version by New Orleans pianist James Booker.

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