I’ve been taking a survey this Christmas season about favorite Christmas songs. After multiple conversations and a status update on Facebook, my suspicions have been confirmed. Here are my findings:
- Even self-appointed music experts/snobs let down their guards when it comes to Christmas music, and
- “O Holy Night” is by far the biggest fan fave when it comes to sacred-Christmas-Eve-service-with-the-whole-family-dressed-in-red-and-green songs.
To the first point, I am definitely a snob when it comes to music. Always have been. If I’d been alive in the 70s, I would have been the one scoffing at disco dancers, while I tripped to Pink Floyd. In the eighties, I much preferred listening to my dad’s albums (mostly The White Album) when everyone else was walking like an Egyptian with The Bangles. I was just old enough in the 90s to listen to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While I appreciate pop music for what it is, I look over my shoulder to make sure no one is watching when I bob my head to Pink and limit my singalonging to Maroon 5 when no one else is in the car.
HOWEVER, Christmas is the one time that none of the Good Music Rules apply. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas?” Bring it on! Ashanti’s version of “Hey, Santa?” Yes, please! 98 Degrees singing “Silent Night?” LOVE IT! I can’t explain it, but after careful observation, I can now confirm that this is true across the board with all my tried and true music snob friends. I don’t exactly understand it, so I’ll just chalk it up to the magic of Christmas.
To the second point, I will never forget the first time I heard someone sing “O Holy Night” in a church service. Well, I take that back. I’m sure I heard it sung at some point earlier in my life, but this time in particular, it was sung well. A family had recently started attending our church, and they had a ten-year-old daughter. She was shy, thin, and unassuming. When she stood on the stage and opened her mouth, I started weeping. Her voice was literally heaven sent in that moment, nothing short of the very breath of God. I was probably thirteen at the time and no stranger to bawling my eyes out for disappointing Jesus on a regular basis during our altar calls, but this was something different. When Melinda sang, I wasn’t convinced by a preacher to come to the front and repent for my sins. It wasn’t an emotional experience brought on by guilt or coercion or the fact that all my friends were going to the altar. It was a genuine spiritual experience, and by spiritual, I mean that I knew that Emmanuel, God was with us.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my adulthood replaying my evangelical experiences, searching to understand what parts were genuine and what parts were just part of a show or someone else’s agenda. In the best times, I’m skeptical. In the worst, I’m cynical. I’m constantly talking to God about why his people are so incredibly screwed up. I get sad. I get weary. I get discouraged. I get angry. And like a true postmodern, I try to sift through all the crap in my head to get to the root of my connection to God and (begrudgingly) his creation.
When I was in high school, Matt Redman wrote a song that became a favorite of every FCA group and young adult Bible study group across America called “Heart of Worship.” Despite its being WAY overplayed in worship services, the song itself pointed to why Melinda’s rendition of “O Holy Night” moved me in such a way. The words read,
When the music fades/ And all is stripped away/ and I simply come/ Longing just to bring/ Something that’s of worth/ That will bless your heart/ I'll bring You more than a song/ For a song in itself Is not what You have required/ You search much deeper within/ Through the ways things appear/ You're looking into my heart
When Melinda sang “O Holy Night,” she was bringing more than a song. She may have been performing in a Christmas play in a packed sanctuary, but in that moment, I might as well have been completely alone in a dark room listening to God’s audible voice singing the soundtrack to my life.
I had already planned on writing a post about everyone’s favorite Christmas songs (it was going to be a lighthearted, funny post somewhere along the lines of how fun it is to sing along to “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas,” but it somehow morphed into this as I wrote) when I came across something interesting.
My husband bought me a nook for my birthday, and one of the reasons I love it so much is for the free Friday deals. Every Friday, Barnes and Noble releases a free book to all nook owners. None of them have been earth-shatteringly great books, but they have all been fun to read and books I probably wouldn’t have otherwise read. For free. So, anyway, last Friday’s book was wait for it...Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins.
Of course, I downloaded it because (it was FREE! and) I thought it might give me something else to add to my fun little post about why no one can help but bounce along to “Santa Baby.” And this is what I found:
“O Holy Night” was written by a French wineseller and poet named Placide Cappeau de Roquemare in 1847 when the parish priest asked him to write a poem for the Christmas mass. He wrote the poem, “Cantique de Noel,” inspired by thoughts of being present the night of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, during a coach ride from his small town to Paris. Happy with his work, Cappeau decided it would be better if set to music and asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, the son of a well-known classical musician, to compose an original score for the poem. Three weeks later, the song was performed at Christmas mass. Its popularity swelled and was sung across France in Catholic churches on a regular basis.
However, soon the heads of the French Catholic church decided the song was no longer acceptable because of its “total absence of the spirit of religion.” This just happened to coincide with when Cappeau joined the socialist movement and left the church and when church leaders learned that Adams was a Jew. Despite the church’s efforts to squash the song, people continued to sing.
A graduate of Harvard College and Divinity School, John Sullivan Dwight came across “Cantique de Noel” and translated it into the words we sing today:
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the wise men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our friend!
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
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!
Dwight was a failed Unitarian minister. After suffering from panic attacks every time he tried to give a sermon, he became a reclusive but accomplished writer. He felt especially connected to the third verse as he supported the abolitionist movement during the Civil War. In France, the song was officially banned in church, but people continued to sing it. It is rumored that fighting ceased on Christmas Eve for twenty-four hours during the Franco-Prussian war after a French soldier bravely stood up and sang “Cantique de Noel,” (despite the fact that German troops were nearby) as a temporary sign of peace.
In 1906, when Adams was dead and Cappeau and Dwight were old men, Reginald Fessenden, a university professor who had worked with Thomas Edison (you know, the lightbulb guy) spoke for the first time into a microphone over airwaves. His broadcast, the first ever of its kind, was a reading from the Gospel of Luke (the same book of the Bible that inspired Cappeau’s original poem). After reading the scriptures, Fessenden played “O Holy Night” on his violin, making it the first song ever played via radio waves.
And so, we listen to it on the holiday radio stations and sing it in our church services today. We are inspired by the words and the music, bringing us to tears when it’s performed well. And I agree with the 19th century French Catholic church--we feel this way for the exact reason they banned it, the “total absence of the spirit of religion.” This song, my favorite Christmas song, has nothing of the spirit of religion that has eroded the true faith of Christianity. “O Holy Night” takes us straight to the heart of true worship, a giving up of our wants and needs, our strengths and weaknesses, our joys and sorrows, our virtues and our vices. We find ourselves, much like Cappeau must have when he wrote the poem, with glowing hearts next to Jesus’ cradle, reflecting on and basking in the light of a new morning. A new start. An invitation to a law of love and a gospel of peace.
And how did we get here? Through the work of a few of God’s broken people: Cappeau, a wineseller who turned from the church when his politics didn’t align properly; Adams, a talented composer, shunned for his Jewish faith; Dwight, a man who despite his ministerial call was unable to handle the pressures of life but still felt a call to justice; and Fessenden (guided by a man with bright ideas and a lot of light) who made history by excitedly sharing his outside-the-box but back-to-the-basics faith in the name of innovation.
Reading this story today gave me a thrill of hope, and my weary soul certainly rejoices. I know a lot of people, God’s people, who have been hurt by the church’s effort to contain the love of God within giant boxes we call church buildings. These are people who despite their gifts, talents, passion, and earnest longing for justice have been ignored or shunned by the very people who purport to have faith in a loving, compassionate God of peace and justice. We, all of us, have a hard time seeing the light of a star sweetly gleaming because of all the polluted fog the church has created.
Strip away the spirit of religion, the dogmas and doctrines that have developed over the last two thousand years, and we are left with the spirit of the Christ child on a night that is holy not for the pageantry and ceremonial tradition that has come to mean Christmas in the church, but for the simplicity of Christ’s entrance into a world that desperately needs hope and healing.
My prayer is that my life reflects this simple truth: we are all capable of loving and we are all worthy of love. And that is the very essence of all that is holy and divine.
Merry, merry Christmas!