O Holy Night - A History of the Carol

O Holy Night is a Christmas Carol that has been rather hard to pin down. It is omitted from many modern hymnals and caroling books. A look into the history of the carol and its author may shed some light on this. The author of O Holy Night lyrics is Placide Cappeau. Cappeau was a commissionaire of wines, and a part-time poet. Cappeau lived in a small village, Roquemaure near Avignon, France during the nineteenth century (1808-1877). History tells us that Cappeau rarely attended mass and that he was better known for his poetry and this may have been the driving force behind the local parish priest asking him to write a Christmas Poem. In December of 1847 Cappeau obliged and on a trip to Paris was inspired to write a poem. That poem was entitled, Cantique de Noël.

When Cappeau arrived in Paris he knew that this poem needed someone better than him to compose the music. Through some close friends in Paris he was able to take his new poem to the famous composer Adolphe Adam. Adam accepted the work and was able to compose music for the poem. Within a few days the music was complete and allowed Cappeau to return to Roquemaure and present it to the priest who had requested it. Cantique de Noël was first played during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1847.

At first, Cantique de Noël was accepted and incorporated into Christmas services around France. Then the song was omitted from those services and attacked by the French Catholic Church. The song wasn't rejected for its content but it was rejected because of the views and other writings of its author and the false allegation that it's composer was Jewish. Cappeau in his later years had gained a reputation as being a social radical, a socialist and an atheist. Cappeau had become outspoken against opposition to inequality, slavery and social injustice. He also became anti-clerical and French Bishop's sought to distance themselves from Cappeau. The composer Adam's was also mis-identified by the French Catholics as a Jew. By accounts of his funeral notice he was Catholic and his home Parish was Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

The English Translation to the Christmas Carol; O Holy Night ("Cantique de Noël")

In 1855 John Dwight, a Unitarian Minister created a vocal version and English translation to Cappeau's lyrics. The result is O Holy Night as we know it today. The song was first published in English in Dwight's, Journal of Music. The song was quickly adopted by the American public and became part of the American Christmas tradition.

The First Christmas Song Ever Played Live on the Radio

O Holy Night is also famous for being the first Christmas song ever played live over the radio. In 1906 Reginald Fessenden ( a former employee and lab technician for Thomas Edison) transmitted a short broadcast from the Brant Rock radio tower. This broadcast included Fessenden himself reading verses from the gospel of Luke and with him playing the violin to O Holy Night while singing the last verse, live. Thus giving this Christmas Carol the honor of the first Christmas song ever played across the radio. From the Brant Rock radio tower the Christmas Eve broadcast was heard as far away as Norfolk, Virginia. A re-broadcast on New Year's Eve allowed the song to be heard as far away as the West-Indies.