Like the story of the birth of the Savior they celebrate, Christmas carols including Silent Night and O Holy Night are a combination of fact and tradition. Because of his illegitimacy, Father Joseph Mohr who wrote the words to Silent Night had to petition the Pope for permission to enter the priesthood He was born into poverty and died penniless, but he left a priceless legacy to the world with Silent Night.
Franz Gruber did not achieve musical fame beyond his small village of Arnsdorf in Austria until he wrote the music for Silent Night. Then his melody traveled around the world and across centuries. On December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber with the choir behind them, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf and performed “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” for the first time. It is still sung around the world and is one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time.
Tradition says that Silent Night sounded through the trenches louder than the guns of war on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914 shortly after World War I began. In a brief, spontaneous truce, the soldiers on both sides of the trenches sang their versions of Stille Nacht and traded rations and cigarettes. A similar tradition surrounds the French carol O Holy Night in an earlier war. During the Franco-Prussian War, a conflict between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1870, legend said that a French soldier peered over the top of his trench singing O Holy Night or Cantique de Noel.
Instead of firing at the French soldier, a German soldier peered over the top of his trench singing a Martin Luther song. Vom Himmel Hoch da komm icher or From Heaven above to Earth I Come, a popular Germany hymn of the time. The German soldier sang his carol with as much feeling as the French soldier sang Cantique de Noel. The traditional story said that for 24 hours, the soldiers on both sides held a temporary truce to honor Christmas Day, still singing their respective carols.
Like Silent Night, O Holy Night began with a parish priest and Christmas Eve Mass. In 1847, his parish priest asked Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant with just one hand, an anti-slavery activist, and for a time mayor of Roquemaure, France, to write a poem for Christmas Mass. An amateur and occasional poet, Placide Cappeau waited until he was bouncing down a bumpy road on a business trip to Paris to answer his priest’s request. As he traveled to Paris in the reality of the dusty coach, he traveled in imagination to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus. He used the book of Luke in the Bible to guide him and by the time he arrived in Paris he had written a poem that he called Minuit, Chretiens or Midnight, Christians. It became more widely known as O Holy Night.
Placide Cappeau felt that his Cantique de Noel poem deserved to become a song, but since he didn’t know anything about music he asked his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to set his poem to music. Placide had chosen a well qualified friend. At this point in his career, Adolphe Adams had composed over eighty operatic stage works including his masterpiece Giselle in 1841, but this request from a friend challenged Adolphe Adams more than writing scores for orchestras and ballets performed in Paris and Berlin. Adolphe Adams faced the reality that as a Jew, the words of Cappeau’s song celebrated Christmas, a day that he didn’t observe, and Jesus who he didn’t believe was God’s son. Despite these obstacles, Adams merged his original musical score with his friend Placide Cappeau’s inspired words. Both lyricist and musician were pleased with Cantique de Noel and its first performance took place at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1847, in Roquemaure, France.
In the beginning the French church embraced the song and it quickly became featured in countless Catholic Christmas services. Then it became less popular because of the reputations of both Placide Cappeau and Adolphe Adams. Cappeau left the church later in his life and renounced its teachings. He became an active social radical and freethinker.
The Church leaders also discovered that Adolphe Adams was Jewish. The Church quickly and thoroughly denounced O Holy Night which had become one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France. They pronounced it inappropriate for church services and said that it had a lack of musical taste and did not reflect the spirit of religion, but ordinary parishioners and church goers did not stop singing O Holy Night. By 1855, O Holy Night had been published in London and translated into many languages.
John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister, American music critic, journalist, and ardent abolitionist translated O Holy Night into English. He lived at the Transcendentalist community at Brook Farm, Massachusetts and he was involved in the Abolitionist movement in America. According to one tradition that some historians dispute, John Dwight saw something beyond the story of the birth of the Christ child in O Holy Night. He embraced the third stanza of the carol as an expression of his views about slavery and. his English translation of the third stanza was published in his Journal of Music magazine. The third stanza became especially popular during the Civil War. “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.”
On Christmas Eve 1906, when Placide Cappeau and John Sullivan Dwight had grown old and Adolphe Adams had been dead for fifty years, thirty-three-year-old Reginald Fessenden, a university professor and chemist, read the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke into a microphone and then picked up his violin and played O Holy Night. It was the first song to be broadcast over the radio as well as the first radio broadcast, and from its literal translation to its many versions, O Holy Night it is a still one of the most recorded and broadcast carols.
Traditional Christmas carols like Silent Night and O Holy Night and their creation stories come from different and often conflicting traditions. They touch the hearts of ordinary and famous people alike and they teach us that Christmas is for both saints and sinners. Most of all they show us that saints and sinners can write beloved sacred carols that offer heavenly hope to an earthly imperfect world.