Banned in France: ‘O Holy Night’

“O Holy Night” is one of my favorite Christmas songs for its beautiful melody. After I read the original lyrics, I loved it even more.

Like many of our favorite Christmas carols, this was written for seasonal worship. A parish priest in Roquemaure, France, asked a local wine merchant, known for his poetry hobby, to write a new Christmas song. Placide Cappeau was not a regular church-goer. Nonetheless, he opened Luke’s gospel and found inspiration for a poem.

Cappeau then asked a friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to set the words to music. Adams was a highly regarded composer, conservatory-trained in Paris, whose work was regularly performed in symphony halls and for ballet companies throughout the Western world. Adams didn’t allow his own Jewish background to keep him from helping his friend. The new song was sung for the first time during the Christmas eve midnight mass in 1847.

The French lyrics speak powerfully to me of our God, what he did for us, and what he deserves from us. See if you don’t love them (in translation) as much as I do.

Midnight! Christians, this is the solemn hour
When God as man came right down to us
To wipe away Adam’s sin that stained us
And put an end to his father’s wrath.
The whole world trembles with anticipation
Upon this night on which her savior’s given.
People! On your knees! Await your liberation!
Noel! Noel! See him now! Redeemer!
Noel! Noel! See him now! Redeemer!

Our faith provides the heartfelt light that guides us
Each — one and all — to the child’s resting place.
As in the past the brilliance of a star
Led to that place the Oriental kings.
The King of Kings is born in humble manger,
You powerful, proud of your great renown —
It’s to your pride that this God preaches right now
Bow down your heads before the Redeemer
Bow down your heads before the Redeemer

The Redeemer has shattered all that binds us.
The earth is free and the heavens open wide.
He sees a brother where we saw just a slave
His love unites us with those whom irons bound.
Who will tell him we see and we are grateful?
For us he’s born, he suffers and he dies.
People! On your feet! Sing your liberation!
Noel! Noel! Sing of the Redeemer!
Noel! Noel! Sing of the Redeemer!

I love these beautiful and challenging words exactly as they were written. I don’t begin to understand why we have buried then under a 19th century American minister’s translation that fails to explain the greatness of God’s liberation and the great honor God deserves.

Words matter. And sometimes the words found by a person who knows words — but comes fresh to the Good Word — can speak more clearly than the best efforts of those who are more familiar with God’s message. I’m grateful to the French wine merchant and his Jewish composer friend who gave us these profound truths in such beautiful form.

Read more of the story of O Holy Night, including the decades when it was banned in French churches as “entirely lacking in theological value” after its author left the faith and became a socialist. And remember how truly God can speak through all of us confused, flawed and prideful children … on this holy night and all year round.

Enjoy any of these wonderful recordings of the English lyrics:

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Advent: A Long Journey Toward a Surprising Light

My father’s childhood train trip from California’s wartime blackout to the brilliant lights of Las Vegas provides a different metaphor for our Advent quest.

We call wartime “dark days” and in the 21st century we tend to focus on the emotional and spiritual darkness of a war.

But for my father, just 11 years old in February 1942, World War II’s darkness was literal. Southern California, as a potential coastal target for the Japanese, lived under a nighttime blackout starting almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. The fear and caution intensified in February after a Japanese submarine fired on an oil refinery near Santa Barbara.

Then an unidentified object was sighted hovering over Los Angeles. The photo shows searchlights converging on the mysterious object, which was never identified. (Image: unretouched Los Angeles Times photo, retrieved from the LA Times online archives).

Hundreds of military shells bombarded the floating device. And every home not yet blacked out swathed its windows in thick curtains to prevent any evening illumination from escaping to provide a target for alien weapons. Automobiles – which were considerably fewer than today – moved cautiously if they moved at all, without streetlamps or headlights to guide them. During those literally “dark days,” no outdoor lighting of any kind was allowed.

Dad’s family were divided at the time. Dad and his younger brother, Jim, were living with grandparents on a two-acre Southern California “farmette” while their Mom, Dad, and toddler brother, Jeff, got settled into brand-new “company” housing near the brand-new company town of Henderson, Nevada. Henderson was where a magnesium mine and refinery was located, producing a “miracle metal” essential to bomb casings and aircraft parts as part of the US war effort. Grampa had taken a job there and Grammie carried her littlest to Nevada with her while she set up housekeeping.

But eventually the moment came for Dad and Jim to join the rest of the family. Their grandparents put them on a train for what was expected to be an 8-hour ride to the station in Las Vegas.

The eastward journey toward home and family stalled repeatedly as the train pulled onto sidings to allow westbound troop transports the right of way. Dad, just 11 years old, minded Jim – then 8 – through all of what turned into a 15-hour trip.

What Dad remembered as the train neared Las Vegas was seeing the light – first the distant glow of a city, then the lights that surrounded the train and blazed along the city’s streets. The Strip in 1942 didn’t look much like what we know as Las Vegas today. But unlike California, it had lights at night.


From California blackout to Las Vegas light! This view was taken from near the train depot where Dad and his little brother arrived in Las Vegas in 1942. (Postcard image appears on the website

Fremont Street in Las Vegas isn’t exactly my vision of God’s light that awaits me. But like Dad and Uncle Jim on that extended rail trip east, we live as children caring for children on a long wartime journey that is often side-tracked. At the end is a place we will call home, heralded by an unfamiliar light and entered by way of a loving Parent’s warm embrace.

Advent lasts a lifetime. Ride expectantly.

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Mary, Martha, and My Holiday Kitchen

That Mary and Martha story can be SO frustrating. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Mary is hanging out with Jesus. Martha wants her sister’s help. And Jesus says no. According to Jesus, Mary’s got it right.

Since I just finished baking 50 dozen holiday cookies (35 dozen for a charity fundraiser), I’m feeling a little irritable on Martha’s behalf.

I like to bake. Sometimes I say — only half joking — “I bake, therefore I am.”

I bake therefore I am

If I find myself with half a Saturday free, I’m likely to fill the house with the yeast and molasses scent of fresh-baked oatmeal bread. This year, I finally learned to make wonderful shortbread (thanks Ronda Swaney for the recipe!). I used to make wedding cakes as my wedding gift to couples I knew. Since I don’t have grandkids to spoil, I made Easter cupcakes for my brother’s grands one year.



My Easter cupcakes were embellished with coconut nests, jellybean eggs, and marshmallow Peeps.


And when the nonprofit where I work needs food prepped for an event … well, I like to play with food. The colors and textures of sliced red peppers, glistening black olives, crunchy wheat crackers, and green-skinned cucumbers are just a different palette than our artists use.


reception Spindleworks

As you can see, I love playing with food … ironing the tablecloth is a different matter!



“Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary,” Jesus tells the busy sister.

Most of us hear that as: “Chill! Sit! Stop doing already.”

What are the many things Martha is worrying about? If we drop her into our century, it might be a roast and a chicken on platters, a fresh-baked loaf on a cutting board with some homemade herb butter in a Depression glass dish, a couple of vegetables, a Pinterest-worthy dessert or two on the side table … and that’s one amazing table setting she’s got underway. Someone needs to Instagram it! Where’s Mary? Wouldja take a few pictures, Mary? … Mary?

Mary chose the better part, Jesus said. In the 21st century, we tend to hear that as an order to sit. Stop cooking. Stop serving. Stop doing. Be like Mary. Focus on the relationship with the guests. It’s not all about making a dinner that your friends will admire when you post the picture. It’s about the people you’re feeding.

And to feed people, someone does have to make food. So what was Martha’s mistake?

Someone told me once that when Jesus told Martha only one thing was needed, he could have been saying that the guests didn’t need a feast of many dishes. A casserole would have been fine. Just one dish. Much less hassle. And much more time to spend with the company.


That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to cook, even passionately. That doesn’t mean that sitting is always better than preparing a meal. It just means that Martha got out of balance. She got focused on showing off her mad kitchen skills instead of on making her guests welcome and enjoying them.

I totally get Martha. I’m way more comfortable doing stuff than just hanging. Take today. I spent five hours in the kitchen baking 15 dozen cookies for a fundraiser (and starting a crockpot cacciatore) before I hauled a carful to the landfill and drove the cookies to the event. I got to the event, I did a lot of arranging and rearranging of cookie trays, photographing a holiday parade, and chatting about business with a studio owner and the president of the downtown association. Plus I made a quick run into Reny’s (“A Maine Adventure”) to pick up gifts for the holiday party in two weeks.

I had fun.

I’m the kind of person your grandmother was talking about when she said, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” If I’m not busy doing something useful, my brain starts sliding down an icy slope and an emotional crisis will hit like an avalanche before I know it.

Sometimes I’m busy doing something for a local charity. That’s what my mom did a lot. She took the 5 am shift five days a week at a local thrift shop, hauling in (or hauling to a dumpster) whatever had been dropped outside the doors overnight. She knit endless hats and mittens for Christmas charities and homeless children.

Sometimes I’m busy with a hobby I enjoy. That’s what my dad did a lot. He built things out of wood: toys and furniture and clocks. He could spend a full day standing in the same spot outdoors waiting for the right clouds to blow into the landscape he was photographing.

Sometimes I’m busy making something I need. My brothers are way better at this than I am. I make things like cat beds and table runners. They make cherry tables and truck beds.

My family likes to do stuff. One brother told his in-laws this Thanksgiving that they’d join the dinner if they were allowed to “work it off.” So while his wife weeded through a 100-foot greenhouse with her mother, he helped his father-in-law with some heavy chores. When one sister wanted the other to visit, she said she needed help with a project.

I suppose that many people would describe my family as a bunch of workaholics who don’t know how to enjoy ourselves. We describe ourselves as New Englanders — thrifty and hardworking. We have more fun raising your barn than raising a glass.

So are we Martha? The problem with Martha isn’t just that she works but that she works when she doesn’t need to. She creates work for her sake, not for the sake of those who receive it.

And Mary … are her hands truly idle? Or are they working hard at learning, when that’s the most valuable task at hand.

The story of Mary and Martha reminds us that at every moment, God has good work for each of us to do. We’re not called to do too much of a good thing, like Martha, trying to drag others into our frenzy of excessive activity. We’re not always called to sit and listen (although when Jesus is speaking, it’s certainly wise to listen!).

The story of Mary and Martha tells me not to stop doing, but to do only what matters.

I bake, therefore I am. And as long as God allows, I will keep baking.


Merry Christmas!


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Happy Christmas? Merry Christmas? Which is right?

In England today, you say “Happy Christmas!” In the United States, you say, “Merry Christmas!” Why the difference?

Believe it or not, the “Merry Christmas!” greeting we use in the US originated in England, more than four hundred years ago. It is first recorded in 1565 in the Hereford Municipal Manuscript, The author offered good wishes that God would send a “mery Christmas” to the readers.

English author Charles Dickens popularized the greeting in his 1843 story, “A Christmas Carol,” the focus of this year’s movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Man who invented Christmas

Christopher Plummer, as the fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge, inspires Charles Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, in this year’s “The Man who Invented Christmas”.


The very first Christmas card printed for sale, also in 1843, used the words “Merry Christmas” as part of its greeting as well.

However, Queen Elizabeth II broke with her own nation’s tradition. She began wishing her subjects a “happy Christmas” in her annual holiday broadcasts more than 60 years ago.

Queen Elizabeth II First RAdio Address 1952

Queen Elizabeth II made her first Christmas radio broadcast in 1952.


People speculate that the Queen substituted the word “happy” because for many centuries the word “merry” had referred to people who were “happy” as a result of drinking too much alcohol. The Queen is reported to have moral scruples about overindulgence of any kind. Therefore, she does not encourage her subjects to make “merry” at Christmas or any other time.


The Grammar Queen salutes all who are subject to words and their proper meanings.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we’ve completely forgotten that “merry” used to mean “intoxicated.” So, in the words of the song, “have yourself a merry little Christmas” – even if there’s no rum in the eggnog.

This post was first written on request of ESL teacher Cecelia Barker of Raleigh, NC, for use in her “Oral Production” class. The Grammar Queen was unfamiliar with “Oral Production” as an instructional topic and had to request an explanation.

The Grammar Queen learned that classes in “Oral Production” aid second language speakers in voicing a new language with the same nuanced sloppiness as natives — to elide words, for example, instead of pronouncing each separately and distinctly. Because the Grammar Queen speaks as a native, although writing as a professional, she withholds judgment about this casual verbal habit, to which she herself is not subject — the Queen is never subject — but is culturally habituated.

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Give What You Don’t Have This Thanksgiving

Does an empty table mean an empty life during the holidays?

empty-table-940x540Do you ever feel trapped by someone’s assertion that you “can’t give what you don’t have”? Sometimes it feels like a phrase designed to keep you from activities you enjoy. By this rule, you can’t give peace when you’re going through difficult personal times, so you shouldn’t expect to pray for others. You can’t give guidance when you’re personally confused, so you shouldn’t ask to teach.

I find the teeth of this trap bite especially hard as we enter the holiday season. I am, again, alone this Thanksgiving. A month before the holiday, I had received no invitations. Two weeks before the holiday, I discovered that my friends all have holiday plans — none is free to join me at my own Thanksgiving table. For 17 years, Thanksgiving was shared with my husband’s family, or with the disabled adults we cared for. Now he has divorced me, I live 900 miles away, and I can’t name anyone who wants to spend Thanksgiving day with me.

You can’t give comfort you don’t have, right?

And if I “can’t give what I don’t have,” then the fact that I am alone means that I must remain alone. You can’t give the comfort of being in company when you don’t have it, right?

Wait a minute. Is that really true?

We tell children who feel lonely that the way to have a friend is to be a friend. To be in company is simply to be with others. Is there any way I can be with others this Thanksgiving?

Last year, my church served a Thanksgiving meal for those who were away from home, so I helped serve that meal. This year, no such activity. So I emailed the pastor of another local church that is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve got all the hands they need to serve. What they need is someone to drive Thanksgiving meals out to shut-ins.

Visit those imprisoned by ill health

In a state with good public transportation, older adults might be more able to get to the dinner at church. In a more densely populated state, someone might live nearby to give them rides. In a different time, they would be living with relatives and simply share the meal the family prepares.

Here in 21st century Maine, if you are even temporarily unable to drive, the four walls of the too-big house you live in all alone can start to feel like a prison. Last winter, when I had a broken foot, I spent almost all of the hours of every day and night in my own house by my own self. I was offered (and took) rides to a weeknight small group, but didn’t get calls offering to bring me to Sunday services. The only people who called asking if I needed practical help were one colleague and one nearby sibling. (My brother and his wife loaned me the little red scooter I relied on during that 6 weeks … my colleague drove me to the supermarket and then taught me it was okay to use the motorized “MartCart” to get around the store!)

All that to say: I know what it feels like to be left to fend for myself at a time when I need and want the company of others.

So this Thanksgiving, I’ll be carrying dinner to some rural elderly who live about a half hour from their church. They live in prisons built by age, infirmity, and the structures of our culture. Like the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned for failing to fall in line with dominant Jewish and Roman religious traditions, their imprisonment is not due to any failing. They are “imprisoned” simply because they don’t fit into the culture they — and we all — live in.

God tells us to visit those in prison. And that’s what I’m doing this Thanksgiving.

How can I give what I don’t have?

How can I bring company when I don’t have company? How can I break their isolation when I live in my own solitude?

That’s where the rule clearly breaks down. Maybe I can’t give you confidence that you will never be left alone when my own life proves that people are often left alone. But I can give you whatever company I am able to offer. And in giving, I will receive your company.

God says: Give and you will receive

This is how God says it: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38). 

According to God, we give from God’s abundance, not our own. He tells followers who, to the best of our knowledge have never been raised from the dead or freed from leprosy, that they are to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matt. 10:8)

And God points it out again when two disciples tell a beggar that they can’t provide him money but can give what they have: the power of God as they invoke it to free him to walk (Acts 3).

I don’t need to have anything in myself or of my own before I can give to you. I don’t need to have the social life I want, to have the peace I desire, to be clear about what is coming next. All I need is to know that God is with you and me together.

Such as I have, I will bring to these shut-ins on Thanksgiving.

And that is more than enough for a plentiful feast.

NOTE: After I committed to carrying Thanksgiving dinner to shut-ins this year, a relative who lives more than 2 hours away invited me to join their family celebration. I am grateful for the invitation, but unable to participate. And for the sake of these shut-in elders, that may have been God’s plan.

NOTE 2: I just received a second invitation, this time via Facebook to “anyone who will be eating alone.” The invitation comes from a colleague who experiences many health difficulties that often limit her activities. “We have plenty of room at our table,” she wrote. And in their hearts, I might add.

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