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O Holy Night

Lyrics are in public domain; tab is subject to rules of this site. See “About the tab” posting.

“ O Holy Night” was composed in 1847 by French musician Adolphe Adam (pronounced with the stress on the last syllable of each word, in the French manner: ah-DOLPH a-DAHM). It was intended as a musical score to the French poem, “Minuit, chrétiens,” by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877). The resulting Christmas carol is usually called “Cantique de Noël” (Christmas Hymn) in French.

English lyrics to the song were first written in 1855, by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music. He re-named the song, “O Holy Night.” The original French lyrics have a strong Catholic flavor, and are quite different from Dwight’s loose English interpretation.

On December 24,1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden made the first AM radio broadcast, in which he played “O Holy Night” on the violin. The carol therefore appears to be the first piece of music ever broadcast. It later appeared in an edition of carols by Josiah Armes, published by Oxford Press in 1936, subsequently increasing its popularity in the English-speaking world.

I prefer the original French poem, for several reasons. French is a lyrical language, while English is a gutteral one; almost anything sounds better in French than in English. The ideas of Christ humbling the mighty while exalting the slave, and exchanging chains of bondage for the union of love, resonate with my spirit. There are parallelisms in the French poem, on several levels. The French version scans better, too. Dwight may have been a man of God, but he was not the poet Capeau was.

French lyrics of “Cantique de Noël”

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’aux nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le coeur-roux.
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,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur!

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 qu'un Dieu prêche.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur.

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,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur !

English translation by Don Falllick:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour
When God-In-Man descended unto us
To erase the Original Sin
And end the wrath of his Father.
The entire world trembles with hope
On this night that gives us a Savior.
People, to your knees! Await your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, behold the Redeemer,
Noel, Noel, behold the Redeemer!

May the brilliant light of our faith
Guide us all to the manger of the Child,
As, in the past, a star shone
And guided the Kings of the East.
The King of Kings, born in a humble manger:
Powerful ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is against your pride that God is preaching.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every shackle;
The earth is free, and the heavens are open.
He sees a brother where once was only a slave;
Love now unites those whom iron chains once joined.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude?
It is for us all that he was born, that he suffered and died.
People, arise! Sing of your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, let us sing of the Redeemer,
Noel, Noel, let us sing of the Redeemer!

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