The year was 1847, and the parish priest of a small French village needed a new poem for the traditional Christmas Eve service. He approached Placide Cappeau, the town’s wine commissioner and a man known more for literary ability than church attendance.
Cappeau thought it was somewhat strange that he, a relative unbeliever, would be given such an honorable task, but he took it up with diligence. In only a few days he had completed “Cantique de Noel “– known to us as “O Holy Night.” When he completed the poem he thought it much too fine to remain ink on a page, and he determined to make it into a Christmas song.
To compose a suitable melody, Cappeau turned to Adolphe Charles Adams, a local composer of some note who had studied at the Paris Conservatory.
Adams scoffed at first. Being a Jew, he neither considered the night holy, nor the baby divine. Nevertheless, he was persuaded and the song with Cappeau’s text was performed just three weeks later on Christmas Eve.
Its popularity grew overnight as townspeople and clergy around France soon considered it a Christmas staple. But, a few years later, Cappeau left the church for good to join the burgeoning socialist movement.
When the church hierarchy learned of his decision, and discovered a Jew had composed the melody, it immediately banned the song from the church, though the populist continued to sing it regularly during the Christmas season.
A decade later, an American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight, chanced upon the song and translated it into the English lyrics we know today. He was particularly drawn to the second verse, which reads “chains shall he break for the slave is our brother.”
With the nation torn apart by the horror of slavery, Dwight worked tirelessly to make the song known far and wide.
In 1871, with the French and German armies engaged in the Franco-Prussian war, on Christmas Eve a startling thing happened. During a lull in the fighting, a French soldier bravely walked out into no man’s land and began singing “Cantique de Noel.”
As he finished and turned back to his line, a robust German voice responded with three verses of Luther’s “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The story goes on to say how both armies agreed to a 24-hour cease fire so all could celebrate the birth of Christ.
But the story of the classic Christmas carol doesn’t end there. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a young university professor and former colleague of Thomas Edison, changed the world forever. Using a new type of generator, he spoke into a microphone and – for the first time ever! – a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves.
Wireless operators on ships at sea, and newsmen waiting for the latest headlines in their offices, heard a voice rather than dots and dashes. Fessenden began reading Luke Chapter 2, the Gospel writer’s description of the birth of Jesus Christ.
When he finished, he picked up his violin and began playing the very first song ever broadcast, “O Holy Night.”
We might wonder what it is about Christmas, and the songs that carry it along from generation to generation. Why has a Frenchman’s poem captured the hearts of millions of people around the world for almost two centuries? The answer is simple.
We all, deep inside our hearts, long for peace. We look at our world, with its floods and fires, terrorists and villains, and the everyday consequences of living among a people filled with pride and selfishness. Even on our best days, there is something we still long for, hope for, and strain to believe will one day become reality.
We would love to change the world, to bring peace among men. But such a desire, while noble, is beyond our reach. We can’t change the world, but we can change our own hearts.
We can’t bring peace on earth, but we can find peace with our creator, almighty God. That’s why we celebrate Christmas, knowing the baby born outside Bethlehem that night was the savior, the Prince of Peace, and God the son incarnate.
May the peace of God be yours in fullest measure through Jesus Christ our Lord this Christmas!
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.