A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature

Happy second week of Advent!

I'm sure you've noticed that the Advent and Christmas carols are starting to fill the air. We sang a few at our church this Sunday, among them O Holy Night.

O Holy Night--Cantique de Noël in the original French--was composed in 1847 by Adolphe Adam. The text of the song came from a poem--Minuit, chrétiens--written by Placide Cappeau who had been asked by a parish priest to write a Christmas poem. Later, in 1855, Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight created a singing English edition based on Cappeau's French text.

As we were singing O Holy Night this Sunday I was struck by the themes of emancipation from the third verse and chorus of the song:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
When I was looking into the song on Wikipedia I discovered that these themes of emancipation are even stronger in the original French poem. A more literal rendering of the third verse and chorus:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
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!
He sees a brother where there was only a slave. Love unites those that iron had chained. People stand up! Sing of your deliverance.

Those are some pretty powerful lyrics. More, these were political and prophetic lyrics.

Recall, the song and French poem were written in 1847. The English version was written in 1855, six years before the American Civil War and eight years before the Emancipation Proclamation. O Holy Night, it turns out, was a song of political resistance and protest. Imagine Americans singing in the years leading up to the Civil War the lyrics Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.

O Holy Night as political protest. A Christmas carol as resistance literature.

This is as it should be. Advent is a call to Christian anarchism, the proclamation of the King of kings. With the coming of the Christ Child the Principalities and Powers had been put on notice. There's a reason the Powers tried to kill the baby. Reasons a young pregnant peasant girl once sang about:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature”

  1. Great post.  I had a preaching professor who had a pastorate in Manila during the 1980s.  When he arrive a few generals in the congregation kindly said to him, "You worry about the gospel and we will worry about politics."  My professor kindly replied, "Okay" and proceeded that Advent to preach the Magnificat.  The generals were not too amused and reiterated their statement: "You worry about the gospel and we will worry about politics."  My professor replied, "That is exactly what I am doing."

  2. Fascinating. I took a look at the French lyrics and the emancipation spoken of there seems to have been strictly spiritual. The first stanza talks about the "original stain" that was erased and the hope felt that night a Savior was given to us. In the second stanza, the redeemer sees those who were slaves (to sin) and makes them now his brothers, united to each other in love.

    So, the 1855 American version by the Boston minister John Sullivan Dwight takes that spiritual statement and then makes a deliberate social statement about the slave as our brother and Christ as the end of oppression. Wow. Much preferable as our heritage in song from the Civil War era than the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

  3. Ah well, the version I consulted only had two stanzas...so disregard the word "second."

  4. Oops, back again. Looks like the French speaks to social order as well, with pretty strong words about the mighty ones and their pride. Who was in power in France in 1847? There was quite a succession of regimes, no?
    Well, I shall have lots to think about next time I sing or hear this song. Thank you.

  5. Revolution of 1848, Paris, with riots occuring in 1847 .... beginning of the Second Republic. FWIW
    Victor Hugo actively revising his Les Miserables during this time period

Leave a Reply