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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About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com, churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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