“O Holy Night” Revisited

shutterstock_64157308_FotorA few years ago, my friend, Kevin Hartnett, wrote two new verses for the classic and well-loved carol, “O Holy Night.” We ended up recording his version on our new album, Prepare Him Room. We called it O Holy Night (Hear the Gospel Story).

Any time you mess with a “classic and well-loved” carol, you’re bound to get some questions. Why change something that has been popular for so many years? Why fix what ain’t broke?

The original lyrics for “O Holy Night” were written in 1847 by Placide Capeau, a Frenchman, at the request of his parish priest. The author was so encouraged by what he had written that he asked his Jewish friend and composer, Adolphe Adam, to set the lyrics to music. The result,”Cantique de Noel,” was immediately received by the church. But Cappeau was a wine merchant by trade and not a regular churchgoer. He eventually joined a socialist movement and stopped attending church altogether. In response, his song was banned in France for two decades. But across the Atlantic, the song gained momentum through a translation made by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. To see how much the song changed from the original, here is a literal translation of Cappeau’s lyrics:

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

It’s not difficult to see that Dwight moved the emphasis of the song away from the Incarnation as God’s means to redeem men from sin. Instead, his lyrics stressed the universal longing for peace and justice which God’s Kingdom inaugurated.

Here’s how Kevin processed all this:

I felt that Adam’s wonderful melody and the beautifully poetic and longing content of verse one by Dwight (albeit a poor translation of the French) deserved companion verses that better explained the “thrill of hope” that sinners find in Jesus—the evident theme of Cappeau’s original poem. Verse two, then, was composed to succinctly explain the gospel while verse three was written as an evangelistic appeal.  Jesus is the doorway to eternal life; a “new and glorious morn” await all who sincerely call upon Him as Savior and Lord.

Altering hymn lyrics is a practice that is centuries old. One of the more well known examples is Crown Him with Many Crowns, originally written by Matthew Bridges, a Catholic, then later modified by Godfrey Thring, an Anglican. The version most churches sing today combines lyrics from both authors.

The traditional lyrics to “O Holy Night,” as Kevin points out, lack any clear reference to the meaning of that glorious night. The verses he added can be found on his website, and we adapted them slightly to end up with this:

Humbly He lay, Creator come as creature
Born on the floor of a hay-scattered stall
True Son of God, yet bearing human feature
He entered earth to reverse Adam’s fall
In towering grace, He laid aside His glory
And in our place, was sacrificed for sin
Fall on your knees, O hear the gospel story!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

Come, then, to Him Who lies within the manger
With joyful shepherds, proclaim Him as Lord
Let not the Promised Son remain a stranger
In reverent worship, make Christ your Adored
Eternal life is theirs who will receive Him
With grace and peace, their lives He will adorn
Fall on your knees! Receive the Gift of heaven!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night when Christ was born!

Producer Neil DeGraide shied away from the normal grandiose treatment of the song,  and arranged it as a beautiful, reflective, guitar-driven ballad. But the new lyrics can be sung just as well to a traditional arrangement. You can listen to our version below, and sample the entire album at the Sovereign Grace Music website.

This Christmas season as many people who don’t know the Savior attend your Sunday services, who knows what God might do in their hearts as they sing a familiar carol with lyrics that clearly proclaim the gospel and help them understand why that that first holy night was so significant in the first place.

And if you’re interested, here’s the new lyrics with a more traditional treatment.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)


7 Responses to “O Holy Night” Revisited

  1. Carin Basson November 4, 2014 at 2:13 AM #

    I love the lyrics and the arrangement!

  2. Joshua Simon November 7, 2014 at 10:00 AM #

    Amen to this and more grace to you as you are still empowering me with these define inspirations. The Lord bless you.

  3. Shannon Lewis November 12, 2014 at 11:38 AM #

    Call my mind blown! So glad you guys “reclaimed” this one – I’ve always loved the melody, but like many Christmas songs, the theology was sketchy. I think my favorite is “God made Low”… will likely use that one this December

    Btw, Bob – I’ve re-entered the blogging world over at my SaintLewisMusic site. If you ever have free-time & want to chime in, here’s your invite! Hope to get up to visit you one day in the Spring when I pass through & drop in on the Gilles fam (my parents live in Cincy, so I pass through Louisville on occasion).

    • Bob Kauflin November 13, 2014 at 7:18 AM #

      Thanks, Shannon! Let me know if you’re ever passing through!


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