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O Holy Night - the surprisingly controversial Christmas Carol

O Holy Night
O Holy Night

If you are looking for a carol with angelic voices, heartwarming sentiment and, above all, a great tune that works toward a tremendous climax, O Holy Night has it all. We're not surprised that it's the most played and downloaded carol here at 8notes. But intriguingly, the piece has been on the receiving end of a fair share of criticism and controversy over the years.


The carol started life as a French poem by Placide Chapeau in 1843, commissioned by the parish priest in Roquemaure to celebrate the renovation of the church organ. Composer Adolphe Adam, known for his opera ‘Giselle,’ wrote the music. The finished piece was premiered in 1847 by opera singer Emily Laurey. The opening line in French is ‘Minuit, Chrétien, c'est l'heure solennelle’ (Midnight, Christian, is the solemn hour) and to this day the song tends to be used in Midnight Mass in French churches.

Translation to English

The familiar English language version of the song is a translation made by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight in 1855. In doing so he made some small changes to the opening melody, otherwise the music remained faithful to Adam’s original.

Musical criticism

The piece has often received a measure of criticism for the saccharine sentiment of both its words and music. In 1864, for example, the French music journal ‘Revue de Musique Sacrée’, referenced its popularity and described it as ‘debased and degenerated’ - which seems a little harsh. Musically it has also been criticised for being one of the most difficult Christmas pieces to sing, the high range of the final climax sometimes resulting in excruciating performances by amateur and even professional singers.

A ‘religious Marseillaise’?

The piece quickly became controversial in France. Some considered it inappropriate that the original lyrics were written by an atheist and - in a shocking reminder of the antisemitism of the time - the music by a Jew. The year after its first performance was also one of political unrest in France with the outbreak of the 1848 Revolution. In that context Adam didn’t endear himself to either secular or religious authorities by referring to ‘O Holy Night’ as a ‘religious Marseillaise.’

The English language version of the carol, with the lines ‘Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease’ also made the song a popular anthem amongst abolitionists in the United States.

O Holy Night Goes to War

The uplifting and transformational nature of the carol and its lyrics is reflected in a famous, though possibly apocryphal, story dating from the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. It is said that on Christmas Eve that year during a truce in hostilities, the French troops sang the song across the trenches for the opposing side, a story that mirrors the famous use of 'Silent Night' during the trenches of World War One.

A more recent example occurred in 2004, when The Marine Corps Times reported in December of that year that the Rev. Ron Camarda, a Catholic priest and Marine Reserve major, whilst conveying a message of love from home, sang the song to a dying Marine in Fallujah, Iraq.

Great performances

Despite the sometimes controversial nature of O Holy Night, in the twentieth century it became a hugely popular Christmas anthem. Unsurprisingly, it has been performed by a number of famous artists.

Mariah Carey’s gospel-inflected performance, with 114 million views (and counting), is the most popular on YouTube:

It was performed by Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo in a live concert in Vienna at Christmas in 1999:

Josh Groban recorded a popular solo version in his 2007 album ‘Noël’:

And British singer Aled Jones made a duet of the piece with young treble Malakai Bayoh:

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