Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature

Last Advent I wrote about two different Christmas Carols--O Holy Night and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear--describing each as "resistance literature." Both songs are being sung a lot right now in churches and at Christmas concerts and they can become sentimentalized. So a reminder from last year about some of the justice and peace themes in these songs:

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 you sing O Holy Night you might notice 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 you look the original French poem the themes of emancipation are even stronger. 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!
Those are some pretty powerful lyrics. More, these were political and prophetic lyrics.

Recall that the song and the 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. Consider the words of Mary's Song, the Magnificat:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...

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."
If O Holy Night speaks of liberation and emancipation, consider also the powerful lyrics of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear on the themes of violence, war and peace:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
This is a stunning image. The angels appear above the shepherds and declare the birth of the Christ child with this refrain of peace on earth:
Luke 2:13-14
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Peace on earth.

And yet, as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear recounts, since that angelic declaration of peace there has been "two thousand years of wrong." Why? Because "man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring."

There is no peace on earth because we don't hear the love song.

And so the call continues to go out:

"O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing."

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11 thoughts on “Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature”

  1. in a similar strain, see the words to "I heard the bells on Christmas day" by Longfellow, following the death of his son in the American civil war.
    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;"For hate is strong,And mocks the songOf peace on earth, good-will to men!"But the last stanza hope breaks through....Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;The Wrong shall fail,The Right prevail,With peace on the earth, good-will to men."It is seldom sung down here in NZ, but it carries a bitter/sweet sentiment that I find quite evocative.

  2. One reason why I love your blog is because so often you include the historical context behind the content. I love that.

  3. Thanks! I use this blog like a personal journal. If I learn about something, I write about it.

  4. Beautiful! If only we could sing a version of "O Holy Night" that mirrored this translation!

  5. Interesting. In the Swedish translation it's "See a beloved brother in your slave".

    The French original has both "People fall down [on your knees]" and "People stand up" (in the last verse), but the Swedish translation only uses the first phrase.

  6. O Holy Night also holds the honour of being the first live music performance ever broadcast, at 9PM on Dec.24, 1906. See 

  7. I love this.  Thanks for shedding light on these songs.  It certainly adds power to the song.

  8. Two powerful modern "classics" are Roger Whittaker's "The Governor's Dream", which describes the Christmas story as a nightmare that Quirinius, governor of the Jews was having. Whittaker sings the part of the Governor and at the end, his nightmarish calls, "Who sings? Who shouts? Come out, come out I say!" are drowned out by a chorus singing, "Holy, holy, holy, he is come, he is come."

    But my very favorite radical message is John Michael and Terry Talbot's "Advent Suite".

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