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How "O Holy Night" Became a Popular Christmas Carol

“O Holy Night,” crafted by Adolphe Adam, is one of the most revered Christmas carols around. It was composed in 1847 of “Minuit, chrétiens,” a French poem crafted by poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau.

French composer Adolphe Adam & French poet Placide Cappeau


The carol has multiple versions, the original French and the English variations being the most predominant. The text of the original poem offers connotations of the birth of “Jesus,” and the subsequent redemption of humanity. The genesis of “Minuit, chrétiens” can be dated back to the end of 1843. In that year, the church organ at Roquemaure of southern France had experienced a renovation, which subsequently led to celebrations. On the said occasion, the parish priest successfully coaxed Placide Cappeau, the local poet and wine merchant, to craft a poem for Christmas. In the same year, Adolphe Adam crafted its accompanying music. In 1847, the song was subsequently premiered by Emily Laurey, a famous opera singer. In 1855, John Sullivan Dwight translated the “O Holy Night” into English.  

Musical Overview 

“O Holy Night” has a controversial, albeit intriguing history. The dissensions attached to it can be connected with two distinct facts - Placide Cappeau, the lyricist being an atheist, and Adolphe Adams, the composer being a Jew. Neither were so-called “church regulars,” which created a furor among the conservative Church authorities. Although “O Holy Night” was initially incorporated and accepted into Christmas services, its Atheist-Jewish origin was soon discovered. 

The carol was subsequently declared unsuitable for Christmas services and received an immense amount of flak for a “lack of musical flavor” and the stark absence of religious spirit. The lyrics focused on humanity and championed humility. The fact that all men and women can have “souls” was considered to be highly radical at that time. The Catholic Church tried its best to bury the song, and somewhat succeed. However, the English translation by John Sullivan Dwight revived it, focusing on the universality of the “human spirit.” Dwight’s version quickly became famous in the United States of America due to the ongoing Civil War.  

The Humane Effect 

The carol had its unique energy and effects throughout history. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, a French soldier started singing “O Holy Night” on Christmas Eve. This event took place in the middle of a fight when the soldier suddenly stood up in his trench and faced the perplexed Germans unarmed and broke out into the song. The legend goes that, the Germans responded by singing a carol of their own. The hostilities were subsequently ceased for 24 hours, and soldiers from both camps celebrated Christmas. 

Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor helped devise the radio, and after briefly studying the bible, he started playing the tune of “O Holy Night” into a microphone. This was again reflected on the Christmas Eve of 1906 when sailors across the Atlantic were stunned to hear a man’s voice and music coming out of the wireless machines that generally transmitted morse codes. The teary-eyed sailors floating in the dark oceans were mesmerized, and very much awestruck by the transcendent melody as it was played on the radio. Finally, in 1933, the carol succeeded in gaining mass recognition in the contemporary music industry. 

Usage in Popular Culture 

The song has several recorded versions and has left a vast footprint among “religious music,” “classical music,” and “popular music” singers over time.

  • In 1960, Nat King Cole used this song in his album titled "The Magic of Christmas."

  • In 1968, this song was utilized by Mahalia Jackson for her album titled "Christmas With Mahalia." 

  • In 1968, Mireille Mathieu created a version of the song, collaborating with her father, Roger Mathieu. It was released on her album "Chante Noël." 

  • In 1992, the song featured in the "Wisepack White Christmas Compilation CD," a collaboration by "The Original Drifters" and Bill Pinkney. 

  • David Foster, the eminent singer-songwriter, has produced and arranged the song for multiple artists. In 1993, Michael Crawford sang "O Holy Night" for Foster's "The Christmas Album." He again sang a rendition of the song for "The David Foster Christmas Album," a corresponding special for television. The former version reached rank No. 48 in 1993 "Billboard Top 200."

  • In 1994, Mariah Carey crafted her own rendition for her album "Merry Christmas." It was her first studio holiday album and achieved No. 8 in the "Billboard Holiday Digital Song Sales" chart. The album also went on to sell a staggering 15 million copies worldwide. Carey re-released the song as a single again in the years 1996 and 2000. 

  • In 1996, John Berry crafted a version which was No. 55, in the "Hot Country Songs" chart. 

  • In 1997, Martina McBride followed in Berry's footsteps and achieved No. 74 in the "Hot Country Songs" chart through her rendition. In 1999 and 2001, her version reached No. 49 and 41, respectively. 

  • In 1999, the song featured in "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve," a platinum-selling DVD by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 

  • In 2002, Josh Groban crafted a rendition of the song, which reached No. 1 in the "Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart." 

  • In 2004, the celebrated singer Celine Dion used the song on "These Are Special Times," in her platinum album. 

  • In 2006, Josh Gracin's rendition of the song reached No. 59 on the "Hot Country Songs" chart. 

  • In 2009, the song was again used in "My Christmas" by Andrea Bocelli for his double-platinum album.

Magical Melody 

“O Holy Night” has always been alluring, and holds true to the fact that “music is might.” In spite of multiple controversies, multiple instances when it had to be sanitized to suit the narrative of the church, it has reclaimed its charm. It has survived its multiple detractors and has carved a niche of its own in musical history. The saccharine glaze of its melody blended sublimely with its English version, offering a delicate aura of elevated abstraction, which is a far cry from the original French narrative. “O Holy Night” is truly fascinating. It offers the truest feeling and appeals to our intellectual temper, crafting a beautiful image - a serenely beaming sense of love and yearning for unity.  

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