Songs of Christmas: O Holy Night


There are a number of popular Christmas songs that originated in France. Perhaps the most obvious is “The First Noel,” as “Merry Christmas” translated in French is “Joyeux Noël” (if interested in more on that song, you can look at this post from last year). However, probably the most well known is “O Holy Night,” as this is a song that is often sung in church and has been performed by many different famous musicians throughout the years. 

Interestingly enough, when I went to look at the words of “O Holy Night” in the hymnal I have at home (the Trinity Hymnal), I discovered it wasn’t there! At first, I wondered if this might be because it is a difficult song to sing due to its vast range (it’s tough for many of us to hit…and keep the high note at the end!). But as I did more research, I discovered that the music has only been a minor point of debate in terms of whether it should be sung in church – much more attention was focused upon the writer and translator of the song and its content.

The Story
Unlike “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the story of the song’s origins are not really debated or disputed. The renovation of the church organ in the town of Roquemaure in 1843 prompted its writing, as the priest of that church asked the poet Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem that was then set to music by the composer Adolphe Adam. A few years later (1847), it was performed by an opera singer named Emily Laurey during the Christmas mass at the church of St. Jean-Baptiste et Jean l’Évangeliste. It became widely popular in France, being known by its opening line (“Minuit, Chrétiens,” which translates to “Midnight, Christians”) or the name “Cantique de Noël” (Song of Christmas). John Sullivan Dwight then translated this song into English and published it in 1855. It’s important to recognize that this song emerged in what was a tumultuous time both in France and America, as 1848 marked yet another revolution in France (less than a century after the more famous French Revolution) and 1861 was the start of the American Civil War.

Embedded in this account of the song’s origin are elements that led to controversy. Cappeau was not a pastor or priest or leader in the church, but rather a wine merchant and a poet (quick aside: an accident when he was a child led to him losing one hand, which meant he would end up focusing more on the poetry and a bit less on the family business of wine making). In fact, he was not known as a particularly pious person, and later in life, seems to have walked away from the Catholic Church and fully embraced socialism. His views and beliefs in part led to suspicions about the song and the banning of its performance. 

The role of Adam as the composer also proved problematic. Many accounts of the history of the song have noted that he was Jewish, which also played a role in people opposing Christians singing it. However, there is some dispute about Adam being Jewish, with some noting that he actually received a Christian baptism (could this be a sign that he converted from Judaism, at least nominally?). It is unclear if he was Jewish and what sort of effect that might have on singing a song about Jesus, but his background as an opera composer does explain why the music of this song is both beautiful and also difficult to sing.

Concerns also surrounded the American translator of the song, John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight was a Unitarian minister (so he denied the Trinity) who was an abolitionist and influenced by transcendental thinking (I also read that he was a music critic…and a Santa impersonator!). His abolitionist beliefs – which seem on display in the line about the “slave is our brother” in the third verse – led to it being an anthem for abolitionists but also opposed by many churchmen in the South who defended slavery. In addition, his denial of the Trinity and sympathy to transcendental views led people to look for such leanings in the song’s lyrics and believed it to have faulty theology.

The story of this song thus shows why it has been so controversial and why some Christians refuse to sing it. It also raises the question of whether a song should be rejected because of the views of those involved in its composition. If a songwriter is found to walk away from the faith or to reflect a lifestyle unfitting to the gospel, should we stop singing their songs? This is a relevant question in our world today, as we continue to see people whose words and conduct do not reflect the truths they have written and spoken. My personal view is that it appears most people do not connect particular songs with the writers (at times with a popular performer, but not necessarily the writer themselves). In addition, we know that God can and does speak through people (and even donkeys!) who might not realize what they are saying. Thus, I think the more appropriate thing to consider is not who wrote the song, but rather what it says. Of course, when someone knows the background of the songwriter, they should carefully examine the words to see if they reflect some of the theological or moral shortcomings seen in the songwriter’s life, but the focus should be on what is said or emphasized, not on the person who wrote them.

The Song
Before looking at some of the words of the song, it’s wise to recognize that Dwight’s translation of the song was not a “word-for-word” or even “thought-for-thought” translation. What I mean is that Dwight’s translation deviates in many ways from the song as it was originally composed. This is not an indictment on Dwight, as it is difficult to translate something from one language to another in general, and even more so in terms of poetry and meter. Because most of us would sing the English translation of the song, I think we should probably focus on the meaning of the words of that version, but I do think looking at the French original and comparing the two might also help us understand nuances in the song.

While there were changes, the overarching themes and feel of the song remains the same: a somber celebration of how Christ’s coming to earth brings hope to a broken world that invites us to worship. Such a brokenness appears in words in the opening verse in English like “Long lay the world in sin and error pining” and “the weary world rejoices.” We can see how this theme would resonate in France in the 1840’s and in America in the 1850’s – and it continues to do so today as we see the effects of sin and may feel like we are living in tumultuous times. It is to this world of brokenness that Christ comes and gives us hope.

There is a second verse that I was less familiar with which speaks of the “Wise Men from Orient” coming, as they are “led by light of a star sweetly gleaming.” The imagery here comes from Matthew 2 and visit of the Magi; while worded a bit differently in the French, a description of this event also appears in its second verse. The reference to the wise men actually undercuts the common description for Cappaeu writing this song under the influence of Luke 2 (which he consulted because he was not overly familiar with the details as a non-religious man); it would seem that he also knew about the events in Matthew 2. While I’m a fan of not confusing those two accounts (and remembering that Mathew does not show the wise men going to the manger), the different verses do keep them separated.

The third verse of O Holy Night shows another theme that was found in the French original that Dwight latches onto. This is a reference to the transformation of life and society that happens through Christ. The original version speaks of how “He sees a brother where there was just a slave/Love unites those whom iron enchained” and the English translation says, “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.” Dwight’s abolitionist beliefs may have led to emphasize and develop this point more (and maybe what led him to want to translate this song). In addition to increasing this social implication, Dwight also seems to have elevated the aspect of Jesus’s teaching rather than his death, as he opens this verse with “Truly He taught us to love one another” and does not have any statement that reflects the line in the French version of this third verse that says, “He was born for all of us, that he suffered and died.” The humanity and example of Jesus is also found in the second verse in English, as it notes “In all our trials born to be our friend/He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger.” This idea does not appear in the French original.

As we compare the English and the French translations, we notice in many ways that there is less focus on the work of Christ as redeeming us from sin and His divinity in the English version. For example, the French refrain mentions Christ delivering people and bringing the redeemer (“Here’s the redeemer”), while Dwight says “O night divine, the night when Christ was born.” Does this subtle shift reflect Dwight’s transcendentalism, finding something sacred and holy in the night rather than in the birth of Christ? When you look at the words closely, it does seem that there is a celebration of the events but less explanation of their significance in the English translation. In contrast, the French version speaks about Christ as Redeemer and Deliverer, with the opening verse including a reference to Christ’s divinity as well as his work in taking away sin and stopping God’s wrath (“When the man God came down to us/To wipe away the original sin/And stop the wrath of His Father”). This teaching seems missing in the English version. I found the inclusion of these lines in the French interesting in that some had accused the original of having faulty theology; its theological teaching seems stronger than what we have in the English version!

That being said, there is not a denial of what we believe to be true in and through Christ’s birth; not every song is going to teach every doctrine. While Dwight’s translation might have eliminated some of the references to Christ’s work, we would recognize that only by comparing the versions (which very few do!). Thus, if we sing the song alongside others that speak this truth and also teach elements of the meaning of Christ, we are not forgetting or rejecting these truths. Rather than a song of instruction, this seems to be a song of response, evoking worship in our hearts as we reflect on the events that occurred on that night that makes it holy.

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