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What ‘O Holy Night’ Gets Wrong About Christmas

What ‘O Holy Night’ Gets Wrong About Christmas

At the blustery end of 1843, a priest in Roquemaure, France was looking to celebrate the recently completed renovation of his parish. To that end, he asked a local wine merchant and poet by the name of Placide Cappeau to write a commemorative song. Cappeau gave him ‘O Holy Night.’

It’s interesting that Cappeau took the job. He was an avowed atheist, with well-known anti-clerical views. He had even been accused of socialism—organized religion’s antithesis, at the time. Something of a tragic figure, Cappeau had lost his hand to a gun accident when he was 8 years old. Without a hand, there was no place for him in the family copper business, so he took to studying literature. The general consensus seemed to be that Cappeau was a fine writer, but his works never quite caught on (even before the so-called “death of print,” writing was a financially perilous career choice.) Eventually, he turned to wine making, with a little writing on the side. In the end, his enduring legacy is for a song whose message he never believed.

What might be surprising is that you probably don’t believe it either.

Of course, picking apart Christmas carols is a dicey prospect. Most of them were written with two goals in mind: glad tidings and passable rhyming. That’s why we get “Silent nights” that are also “bright” and “pa rum pum pum pum.” We’re not here to nitpick, but the trouble with “O Holy Night” is that there is something about its central thesis that runs against the very idea of Christmas. Namely, there was nothing holy about the night itself. At least, it was no more holy than anything else in creation.

“Holy” means “set apart.” In that sense, you could say that the night may have been set apart for a special purpose. But Cappeau goes on to call the night “divine,” which leaves little doubt about the message he’s trying to convey here. God is divine. God is holy. Through what Jeaus did, we can be holy too. But part of the magic and beauty and mystery of the night itself was its very plainness.

It’s not fair to blame Cappeau entirely for this. The bulk of the blame falls on a Unitarian minister by the name of John Sullivan Dwight, who translated it to English. He was a transcendentalist, who believed that nature was inherently good. And actually, a number of carols reference the night of Christ’s birth as being holy, and it’s a profound putting of the cart before the horse. But what’s interesting is that the biblical account actually goes to great lengths to convince us of the opposite. The night was ordinary. So was everyone involved in it. Ordinary shepherds. Ordinary town. Less-than-ordinary stable. Ordinary father. And, most notably, ordinary mother.

I save her for last, because she’s such a central figure. After a very un-ordinary angel shows up to announce that she was pregnant with the Messiah, her first act was to recite what we might as well call the first Christmas carol. It’s called the Magnificat, it’s recorded in Luke 1:46-55 and it’s about as far away from most carols as you can get, full of toppling kingdoms. “He has shown might with His arm,” she sings. “He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones.” It’s filled with references to the Old Testament which is extraordinary, given the fact that it was written by a girl who was probably about 14 and most likely couldn’t read. She had committed vast amounts of Scripture to memory.

But maybe the most interesting part is her first line. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid.” In this simple line, we get the full spectrum of Christmas. The lowliness of earth. The holiness of God. And the joy we experience when we remember that He is mindful of us.

Because the night wasn’t holy. It was like, a lot of things down here, pretty bad. It was full of fear and anger and sadness and a lot of hurt. This particular night took place in an unpopular town in the oppressed country of an enslaved people. And although Mary and Joseph were faithful and obedient, you have to wonder if they’d expected a little more, given that this was the culmination of an ancient, divine prophecy. Mary and Joseph were sent to the barn, she had her baby and that was that. As nights go, it was a rough one. They didn’t even get to see any angels.

What was holy was the baby.

Every year, we want Christmas to be something special. To have a movie moment with twinkling snow, a contented family and that quiet glow of yuletide perfection. And every year, it’s hard not to feel a little jipped when the sun sets and the day turned out to be a largely ordinary one. And every Christmas, our troubles don’t magically float away. We still don’t have enough money. Our broken heart doesn’t instantly mend. The seat left by the passing of a loved one seems emptier than ever. We pin a lot of expectations on Christmas Day and, for many of us, it doesn’t seem to be up to the task.

Because this Christmas, like the first one, isn’t holy. It’s just a day. But what we celebrate on this day—what we remember—is the birth of a Savior who can handle our expectations. And our fear and anger and loneliness. It’s not just met by Jesus. It’s why he came in the first place. The only way to redeem an unholy world is with a holy sacrifice.

So, while Cappeau may have gone a bit amiss in his title, some the song’s other lyrics are very true. “In his name, all oppression shall cease.” Maybe not this Christmas but, someday, a new and glorious morning will break. And although the night itself may not have been holy, it’s been made very clear for us what we’re supposed to do with that night.

“His power and glory evermore proclaim.”

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