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O Holy Night: History, Meaning and Performances

O Holy Night Song


The story behind the popular Christmas song 'O Holy Night'

The history behind the writing of the Christmas song 'O Holy Night' is one of the more unique ones I have ever discovered.

A Christian composer named Placide Cappeau was asked to write a song for an upcoming Christmas church service. When contemplating what the theme should be, he focused on the birth of Jesus Christ as written in the book of Luke in the Bible.

Interestingly, while Cappeau wrote the lyrics to the song in poem form, he asked his Jewish friend Adolphe Charles Adams if he would help him in composing the music for the song. The song was originally named “Cantique de Noel.”

After presenting the song to the Catholic church, it was at first accepted, but when Cappeau was influenced by socialist ideas, he denied his faith. After doing so, he, along with his work, were condemned by the church.

But the song seemed to have a life of its own. It was reportedly sung covertly across Europe, and an abolitionist by the name of John Sullivan Dwight brought the song to America, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Meaning of the song

As mentioned above, the source of inspiration for Cappeau was the Gospel of Luke. Below are the specific verses that moved him to write the lyrics.

Luke 2:4-12: “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The lyrics to 'O Holy Night'

It should be noted that John Sullivan Dwight made some slight changes to the lyrics when he shared it in America. Here's the version we have today:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd 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;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

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.

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He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Below are some of my favorite versions of 'O Holy Night.' I hope you enjoy them.

Celine Dion

Josh Groban

Carrie Underwood

Andrea Bocelli

Celtic Women

David Phelps

Lucy and Martha Thomas


While I like many different Christmas songs, the one I most anticipate hearing sung during the Christmas holiday is without a doubt 'O Holy Night.'

Sometimes we lose the meaning of special holidays in the age we live in, and 'O Holy Night' brings millions to remember the reason for the season at its foundational level.

I hope you enjoy and are moved by it as much as I am.

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