O Holy Night

 1 December 2021 |

As we approach the festive time of year and are able to sing carols once again, I thought it would be of interest to look at the history of one of our favourite carols. But one that does not feature in too many hymn books, mainly as it’s sung usually as a solo piece or a choral work and also because it has a wide vocal range for the untrained voice. Thus it’s not in Rejoice & Sing, Congregational Praise or The Source although it does feature in composer John Rutter’s book ‘John Rutter’s Carols’ and The Choir of King’s College Cambridge often feature it in their annual televised Christmas Eve Service.

So O Holy Night is a very popular carol. Last year viewers of Songs of Praise voted it their favourite carol in their annual Top Ten Carols and Classic FM listeners voted it No.1 this year in their 30 Greatest Carols list. It has been recorded by many artists including Americans Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Jones and Mariah Carey. Andy Williams regularly featured it in his Christmas TV show’s in the 1970’s and over here, Aled Jones, Katherine Jenkins and Michael Ball & Alfie Boe have also recorded it. Most recently Collabro – past winners of Britain’s Got Talent – included it in their 2020 ‘Christmas is here’ album.

So what is it’s history and origins. In 1843 in Roquemaure, in southern France the parish priest persuaded poet Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem he called ‘Minuit Chretiens’ – (Midnight Christians) to celebrate the renovation of the church organ. Cappeau later persuaded his friend composer Adolphe Adam – whose most famous work is the ballet Giselle – to compose the music for the poem. It was premiered in 1847 by opera singer Emily Laurey in Roquemaure.

American Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight translated it into English in 1855 to the words we know today. Hence it first became popular in the US and latterly over here. So enjoy this year’s carols and listen out for O Holy Night, which “reflects on the birth of Jesus as humanity’s redemption” an introduction to the poem – translated from the original French text.

Keith Ramsay