The Birth and Transformation of a Carol

The Birth of a Carol

One of the great standard Christmas carols, one of those most likely to be performed by the carolers who will come to your doorstep soon in observance of the season, is ‘O Holy Night.’ In the original French language version, this was known as ‘Cantique de Noël.’ Indeed, the title is a clue that we might fairly take this as the standard Christmas carol because that’s exactly what “Cantique de Noël” means!

In French, though, Cantique is also known by its opening words, Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) which is just a bit less generic.

How did it come to be? The usual story is that Placide Cappeau dashed it off as a poem during a carriage ride in 1847, and then presented it to composer Adolphe Adam through a mutual friend. Frankly, I doubt it was ‘dashed off’ at all. It bears the marks of sustained and loving labor. There is a common meme that great things are written in haste, in the white heat of inspiration – which is a misfortune, because as the world celebrates inspiration the more, we celebrate perspiration the less
Anyway: Cappeau’s first verse and chorus went thus:

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.

Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur !

In literal English translations, that reads:

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.

People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!


There were three problems with singing it that way in English. The most technical is that it doesn’t match the melody that Adam created for it. That first line needs eleven syllables for the eleven musical beats, the English text gives it only ten. Again, the second line needs ten syllables, but the English text only yields eight. This produces the classic trade-off of sound and sense. You can reproduce something like the sound of this carol in English only by changing the meaning.


Je pense, donc je suis

Rene Descartes

Then there’s a cultural problem. The ideas that Cappeau expressed in his verse are quite austerely theological. For an English-speaking audience, anyway, abstract ideas make poor lyrics. Rene Descartes’ fellow countrymen might happily sing the deduction “I think therefore I exist” if only someone will write a snappy tune for it! But Englishmen, and Americans, want imagery.


There’s yet a third problem. Cappeau’s theology turns on the notion of original sin and an angry God. That works fine if your Christianity is of either a Roman or a Calvinist bent. But 19th century Americans were Americanizing Christianity, and this too would require some trade-offs.

It was John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister and the editor of the aptly named Dwight’s Journal of Music, who in 1855 created the lyrics by which the Anglophonic parts of the world know the song.


O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angels’ voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.


Note that there is an image already in that first line. We are told not of the “solemn hour” but of the brightness of the stars.

Forget About the Apple

Consider also the disappearance of “original sin” as a theological concept. Cappeau includes the phrase la tache originelle with all its dogmatic baggage. Dwight turns that line into a reflection on the “sin and error” in which the world existed before the Incarnation of God as man, but no one need read into this any story about an original taint, an expulsion from Eden, or any of the rest of it. Dwight’s own Unitarian and Transcendentalist views, after all, required the rejection of such notions.

Dwight had great expectations of music as a spiritual force. He wrote, “[W]hen it flows from the genuine fount of art in the composer’s soul, when it is the inspiration of his genius, and not a manufactured imitation, when it comes unforced, unbidden from the heart, [music] is a divine minister of the wants of the soul.”

To return to our exegesis, though: the fourth line above represents perhaps the most significant change in meaning in the whole of this trans-Atlantic transaction. Cappeau’s text treats the Incarnation as a matter of arresting God’s wrath. Dwight, again working in a way one would expect of a Unitarian, takes it to mean something more positive, an act that taught human beings the worth of our own souls.

In the final line of this first verse, we see again the move from abstraction to specific sense imagery. We’ve presumably been singing throughout the night, and now “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,” – a nice touch that resembles nothing from Cappeau’s pen.

Likewise, while the chorus of the French carol asks the listener to “wait for your deliverance,” the English language version gives him something he can do in the meantime – hear those angel voices!

We might note, in concluding, that it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the Unitarians merged with the Universalists. But a relationship between the two movements was familiar. In Dwight’s era, a minister in both faiths named Thomas Starr King put it this way: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”

Listen to the lyrical consequences yourself. By their musical fruits, perhaps, ye shall know them.

Angels’ Voices

In French


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