The Christmas Chant

“Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all,” ~Emily Dickenson

When I think of the story of Christmas, I think of a cast of characters that didn’t really belong. There were people who were asked to do things they weren’t entirely confident in doing, but the story they were a part of was so much bigger than they could have imagined. And as a result, it brought hope to the world.

It reminds me of Placide Cappeau.

Placide Cappeau was born in 1808 in Roquemaur, France. His father was a copper, and from the time Placide could walk he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a great tradesman in France.

At eight years old, Placide was playing with his friend Brignon. The two boys found a gun owned by one of their families, and began playing war games. Not knowing the gun was loaded, Brignon shot Placide. As a result of the wound, Placide had to have his hand amputated.

While this ended any future he had in the trades, Brignon’s father felt responsible for the accident. He not only took care of the boy's medical expenses but oversaw and funded his education. Placide discovered that he had a great knack for poetry and went on to get his Bachelor’s degree in Literature before completing a Masters of Law at a university in Paris.

While he practiced law for a number of years, Placide still felt a desire to follow his father and work in the trades. He eventually opened and managed a winery in a small town on the outskirts of France. Poetry, however, remained his passion, and he composed many pieces in his free time.

The Cappeau family was Catholic, and Placide had been raised in the tradition. A life of tragedy and schooling in many secular institutions had driven out most of his faith by the time he was in his late 30’s. His winery made him well known across France, and perhaps the local priest even knew of his atheism.

The priest however had his own struggles. France had just been through one of the world’s greatest revolutions and much of the society was left with a very secular view. Church attendance across Europe was falling—and would continue to do so to modern day—and much pressure was placed on the clergy to find new and innovative ways to bring the gospel to the people.

And thus the priest—whose name is not recorded in any official documents—approached Placide Cappeau for help. In 1847, he asked Placide to compose a poem that would convey the message of Christ’s birth to those who attended the Christmas Eve Mass that year. Despite being agnostic for years, Placide agreed.

Folklore says that Placide wrote the poem while on a carriage ride from Macon to Dijon. Placide himself perpetuated this myth, although most scholars believe it probably took more editing to reach a final draft. The poem became known as “Cantique de Noel” which in English translates to “The Christmas Chant.”

Placide was so satisfied with his poem that he decided to have it set to music before presenting it to the priest. To do so, he approached Aldolphe Adam to compose the music.

Aldolphe, like Placide, had been destine for his life as a composer from birth. His father had been a musician and Aldolphe was sent to best of institutions to study the craft and follow his father’s legacy. His pieces were well known and he received requests from across the continent for help in composing operas, ballets, and hymns. When he received Placide's request to compose instrumentation that could accompany the lyrics of “The Christmas Chant” he was both puzzled and amused. Aldolphe was Jewish and the Christmas story described in the poem meant nothing to him.

Nonetheless, he found that he enjoyed the poem. He described it as building and powerful, and he accepted the invitation to compose the piece.

The priest, the poet, and the composer met just before the midnight Mass to present the piece. All three were very satisfied by the final product and it was performed that night by French opera singer Emily Laurey for all who attended the service.

Unfortunately, the church has a history of picking apart things that don’t matter and missing the point. While “The Christmas Chant” was widely received—in fact, it spread rapidly and other French churches used it in worship in the following weeks to celebrate Epiphany—the Catholic Church was outraged to find out that it had been written by an atheist and composed by a Jew. It was therefore declared heretical and banned from the Mass.

Before it disappeared, the piece was heard by American minister John Dwight, who took it back to the States. As the lead editor for his self-published Dwight’s Journal of Music, he translated and published the chant for churches to use in Christmas worship.

In France, the chant had been a powerful and moving piece about the peace of Christmas and the redemption that Christ brought humanity. In the US, peace and redemption were precious commodities. The country was building towards civil war and as families were split on the issue of slavery, the lyrics of the Chant brought hope for a brighter future.

As the song became a staple in many denominations, it was included in many hymnals. Since hymnals traditionally do not title songs (giving them merely a number, and referring to them by the opening lyric) the name changed from “The Christmas Chant” to “O Holy Night.”

Just 30 years after it was declared heresy, the Catholic Church allowed the hymn to return to the Christmas Eve Mass. More than a century later, “O Holy Night” would become the most recorded Christmas song in the entertainment industry.

In my opinion, this story captures the pure hope of Christmas. People who may not have been the most qualified were chosen for an errand they didn’t completely believe or understand. By answering this calling, they brought into the world a message of hope that couldn’t be silenced.

May the lyrics of “The Christmas Chant” bless you this season!

(A special thanks to Ace Collins, Wikipedia, and Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas from Zondervan for providing insight into the history of this hymn.)

Zach Herzog

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