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O Holy Night: Beyond Sentimentality

A few Christmases ago I learned that “O Holy Night,” that Christmas Eve staple, is based on a quite serviceable French carol, “Minuit, Chrétiens,” by Placide Cappeau. But the differences between the French and English lyrics are striking, as we see by comparing a transliteration of Cappeau’s French with Unitarian musicologist John Sullivan Dwight’s English rendition:


Verse 1
Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.
Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur!
Literal English Dwight
Midnight, Christians! It’s the solemn hour,
Where the God-Man descended unto us
To erase the original stain
And to stop the wrath of his Father.
The whole world trembles from hope,
At this night which gives it a Savior.
People, kneeling, await your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, here is the Redeemer!
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

This image more or less sums up the quality of Dwight’s work:

Dwight adopts Cappeau’s sentimental frame, removes its real content, substitutes his Unitarian preoccupations, and passes it off as a translation.

Midnight, Christians! Cappeau’s verse places the carol in its liturgical context. It is midnight Mass, the first service of Christmas, when the birth of Christ is announced. Not just an ordinary child, this baby is identified as “the God-Man descended unto us,” a solid and orthodox account of the Incarnation.

Our Lord’s purpose in becoming man is just as clearly stated: “to erase the original stain” and to propitiate divine wrath. While this verse emphasizes the purposes of his birth in particular, the final verse will also refer to Christ’s atoning death.

Dwight shifts the liturgical setting to a snow-globe scene with “stars … brightly shining.” He calls Christ “our dear Savior,” but the whole content of the salvation he brings turns out to be the moral example he sets, and a kind of gooey compassion.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining” — yet the only result of Christ’s appearance is that “the soul felt its worth.” Surely the remedy of sin and error must be more than improved self-esteem? Dwight’s “Christ” is not actually God and does not himself deliver the world from anything. “O night divine!” — for Dwight, the night is more divine than the Baby!

In both versions, the world experiences a visceral feeling of hope. Yet for Cappeau this hope refers to the Nativity of Christ and the salvation he offers to the world, while Dwight offers only fuzzy visions of “a new and glorious morn.”[1] What is Christmas for?

Verse 2
De notre foi que la lumière ardente
Nous guide tous au berceau de l’Enfant,
Comme autrefois une étoile brillante
Y conduisit les chefs de l’Orient.
Le Roi des rois naît dans une humble crèche
Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,
A votre orgueil, c’est de là que Dieu prêche.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur!
Literal English Dwight
Our faith, an ardent light,
Guides us all to the child’s cradle,
As of old a shining star
Conducted there the rulers of the East.
The King of kings born in a humble crèche;
Powerful ones of the day, proud of your grandeur,
It’s to your pride that God preaches:
Bow, bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from the Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

Here, although both versions identify Jesus as the King of Kings and refer to the adoration of the Magi, Dwight obliterates Cappeau’s ethical concern. Whereas the original verse addresses a warning to the rich and the powerful, Dwight’s verse extols Jesus only as a sympathetic friend. This is not entirely wrong, but it is very different, and it lacks the confrontational power of the original.

As an anthem of social justice, Dwight’s text fails where Cappeau’s original succeeds. The Incarnation confronts before it comforts. In sanding off the hard dogmatic edges, Dwight also loses the encounter between God and humanity that alone can motivate authentic Christian social action.

Verse 3
Le Rédempteur a brisé toute entrave
La terre est libre, et le ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave,
L’amour unit ceux qu’enchaînait le fer.
Qui lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C’est pour nous tous qu’il naît, qu’il souffre et meurt.
Peuple debout! Chante ta délivrance,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur!
Literal English Dwight
The Redeemer has broken every fetter;
The earth is free and heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was nought but a slave:
Love unites those who were chained in iron!
Who will tell him of our gratitude?
It is for us all that he is born, that he suffers and dies:
People, arise! Sing your deliverance
Noel, Noel, let us sing the Redeemer!
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim!

In the final verse, Dwight retains the image of deliverance for the enslaved. However, the focus shifts. In the original, it is Christ whose vision alone is clear, who “sees a brother” in one whom the world reckons “nought but a slave.” In Dwight’s recasting, it is we who recognize that “the slave is our brother.” In place of the powerful Redeemer who both dies and conquers, Dwight gives us a mild-mannered moral teacher who relies on us to bring an end to oppression “in his name.” Pelagianism in the highest degree!

The French verse adds that not only for the slave, but “for us all that He is born, that he suffers and dies.” Christ’s Incarnation and Passion are for the poor and enslaved, but they are also the only way for their oppressors to be saved. If anything, the rich and comfortable need atonement even more desperately for our sins, so that, humbled before God, we may “sing [our] deliverance.” Not deliverance from human structures of oppression only, but also from sin, the devil, death, and hell. Dwight, meanwhile, skips ahead to Christ’s heavenly glory with no mention of the cross.

The world has seen many wise men and sublime teachers: Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha — but nobody cares when and how they were born, and the circumstances of their deaths make little difference to the worth of their teachings. Christ is different. Both his birth and his death have a direct relation to his mission and the relevance of his work to us today.

This Christmas, why not present this familiar anthem in its native tongue, and rejoice in the gospel of deliverance it contains?

The Rev. Peter C. Schellhase is a priest in the Diocese of Albany, a graduate of Nashotah House, and a native of Maryland and Virginia.

The writer thanks Eugene R. Schlesinger for his assistance with the translation.

[1] Compare this to similar imagery in a first-century social justice text, the “Song of Zechariah”:
“Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). Here the light of dawn is personified; Christ is the Dayspring who has visited us in person. This is not the dawn of universal reason.


  1. Thank you. I was viewing nativity scenes in the Louvre and was struck at a famous one, in the school of Michelangelo. Very solid. Little John gazes over the infant in the crib below him, holding a heavy cross bigger than himself. The painter also has Joseph leaning against a stable frame, also part of a Cross imbedded in the architecture of the scene. The spirit is far closer to what you describe in Coppeau’s frame of reference. The seriousness of the Son’s mission is set forth, so as to call us into a different frame of reference and re-orient us altogether.


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