One of the things I enjoy most about the Christmas season is the songs. Hearing “Santa Baby” over a store loudspeaker starting right after Halloween is a bit much, I’ll admit. But for me, singing carols and songs is a big part of celebrating the holidays.
I decided to do some research into the background of some of my favorite Christmas songs, and it’s been fun to learn more about a couple of them. In the case of one, “O Holy Night”, how the tune came into being is only the start of a very interesting history.
The lyrics were written by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, the resident poet of a small town in France. He had been asked by the parish priest to create something for the Christmas Eve mass. So, he started by reading through the Nativity Story in the book of Luke for inspiration and the words came to him quickly.
Cantique de Noel, as it’s called in French, was embraced by the Church at first, until it was discovered that Cappeau was a socialist. The leadership officially banned the song from services, but the people loved it, and continued to sing it anyway.
The song got introduced to a much wider audience when John Dwight brought the song over to the United States. During the Civil War he worked for slaves’ rights, and so the lyrics “Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother…” caught his ear. The song actually turned into a rallying cry for the North.
Back in France the song became an olive branch of sorts. On a Christmas Eve during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier entered the battlefield unarmed and began to sing the song. After he had finished, a German soldier joined him and sang a hymn from his own country. Fighting between sides actually stopped for the next 24 hours to observe Christmas.
When a song touches that many people, it’s because of more than just a pretty tune or nice lyrics. I think the key lies with where Cappeau started his writing process. He didn’t look at his surroundings or even his own thoughts first – he went right to God’s Word. In scripture he saw the beauty and deeper meaning of Christ’s birth. His words reflect the amazing truth of God’s love for men – and that’s why they’ve resonated so much with people ever since.
I learned more than I expected from this one search. Maybe I’ll expand this into a mini Bible study for next year’s Advent season.
What’s your favorite holiday carol or song?