Backstory: “O Holy Night”

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When you think of “O Holy Night,” you probably think of amazing vocalists belting out the high notes to the accompaniment of a grand piano and a full orchestra.

Or maybe (if you’re old enough) you think of the David Letterman show, and Paul Shaffer’s annual impersonation of Cher singing “O Holy Night.”

But from now on when you think of “O Holy Night,” I hope you’ll think of its amazing backstory. AND, I hope you’ll remember this:

God has a thing for broken people. 


It’s the mid 1840s. The priest of a small village in France goes to the commissioner of wines and asks him to write a poem for Christmas Eve.

Now, this commissioner was not known as a good church member, but he was known as a good poet.  It turns out that despite his poor church attendance, he was honored by the request.  He reflected on the Christmas story, and he wrote the poem while riding to Paris in a stagecoach.

When he finished, he looked at the poem and said, “This is good. This needs to be set to music!”

So he went to a friend of his in Paris, a well-known composer, and asked him to set his poem to music.

And on Christmas Eve 1847, the song was performed for the first time at that little village church.  It debuted to rave reviewsand before long it went viral. Churches all over France were singing “O Holy Night,” (well, actually Cantique de Noel in the original French).


The church hierarchy found out that the man who wrote the words was a Socialist, and the man who wrote the music was Jewish – and they banned the song from ever being performed in the church again.

They said it was unfit for worship.

So they tried to silence it.


Over here in America, there was a pastor named John Sullivan Dwight who had all kinds of problems.

He had agoraphobia, which meant he was afraid to leave the house.

He had panic attacks that would happen in the middle of his sermons.

And he finally had to step down from the pulpit and find something else to do. He started a magazine called Dwight’s Journal of Music, in which he would find new music and publish it.

One day he came across a new Christmas song that was still in its original French. He was mesmerized. He loved how the song told the story of Christmas.

He especially liked how it talked about the breaking of chains and the freeing of slaves, because this was right before the Civil War, and John Sullivan Dwight was an abolitionist.

So, this broken man who started a magazine because he had to step down from his job, took a song written by two outsiders–a song that talks about hope for the broken, and freedom for the oppressed– he took this song written by two outsiders, and he translated it into English, and he introduced it to America.

And the rest is history.  Today “O Holy Night” is one of the most dearly loved Christmas hymns of all time.


The story behind “O Holy Night” is a story of broken people. And guess what? That’s also the story of Christmas!

Look at a traditional manger scene. Think about who’s at the manger.

Mary and Joseph are there. Remember that Mary got pregnant before she was married.  Yes, she was a virgin, but as far as anybody knew back then, she was just another unwed teenage mother.

And why were they in Bethlehem? Because they were living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Pawns of the powerful, they were forced to migrate to another city and beg for a place to live. They were oppressed.

Oppressed people are at the manger.

And then you have the shepherds. Shepherds were dirty and smelly, and nobody trusted them. They were suspected of being thieves, and their testimony was not permissible in a court of law. They were outcasts.

Outcasts are at the manger.

And then you have the wise men – actually, the real term is magi.  The magi were magicians from the royal courts of Persia.  They were foreigners. Immigrants. They had strange beliefs and strange customs, and they practiced astrology, which was a big no-no for the people of Israel.  They were outsiders.

Outsiders are at the manger.

And then there’s the one at the center of it all: Emmanuel, God with us, in the form of the most helpless creature on earth–a human baby.

Jesus is still just a baby, and already he’s turned the world upside down: Dirty, smelly Shepherds are serenaded by the angels of heaven.  Magi who practice a different religion are some of the first people invited.

And an unwed, pregnant teenager becomes the mother of God.

God has a thing for broken people. 

Look at a manger scene, and witness a collection of broken people: Outcasts. Outsiders. The oppressed.

Look at a manger scene, and witness this beautiful truth: God has a thing for broken people.

Look at a manger scene, and be reminded, that if you’re broken (and who isn’t?) …

…God has a thing for you.