Bonus Rewind: The Story Behind O'Holy Night

Bonus Rewind: “O Holy Night” With Curtis Zackery

As we are in this Christmas season, so many Christians around the world enjoy the celebration of advent. Advent is the anticipation of the arrival of Christ and our time of preparation to celebrate his birth. This month, we are reintroducing some of our favorite past episodes and talking about reasons they resonated with us. As single parents, it can be hard to feel the joy of Christmas knowing the deep brokenness and grief that this world holds. Today, our focus will be on the joy that we find in advent and the hope that we find in Jesus. In 2021, just before Christmas, we had this beautiful conversation with Pastor Curtis Zackery. We talked about the origin of the classic Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” I will tell you this: you will never listen to that song the same again.

In the late 1800s, there was a parish priest in Southern France who wanted to make an impact on his Christmas service for the area. He decided to enlist a poet friend to write a piece about the story of Christmas. This poet wasn’t a churchgoer. He understood and knew the significance of the story of Christmas, and he pored over Luke chapter two in order to really get a sense and handle on what needed to be communicated. He did an incredible job turning that story into something profoundly beautiful in an artistic form. He brought it back to the parish priest and everyone was blown away by what was written about the story of Jesus’ birth (in French). It was so profound and impactful they decided to add music. The poet enlisted his friend Adolphe Adam, a Jewish composer. This is where the story starts to really become interesting: A parish priest in a small little town enlists a man who was not a follower of Jesus to write about the Savior’s birth. Then a Jewish man who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah composed music to a piece written about the birth of Jesus—who is being professed as the savior of the world. You already see the song’s foundational elements were not necessarily conventional. It wasn’t a think tank of the top Christian people; it was pieced together starting with a man who loved his city and wanted them to know Jesus. And through the artistic expression of all these creative people, a beautiful piece of artwork was created.

This song is remarkable because it’s so universally accepted. Yet the origin of the song is so unorthodox and unexpected. You can see the way the seeds were planted for [the song] to grow and flourish. Those seeds came from all different spheres and walks of life, and I think that’s partly why it has such a universal connection to people. The centrality of the message transcends culture and it’s the picture of Jesus Christ.

The song began to move throughout the area in France. People were hearing it and saying, “This is amazing.” Meanwhile, there was a man in America named John Sullivan Dwight known for sourcing and collecting music from around the world—he published “Dwight’s Journal of Music.” He came across “O Holy Night” and it was incredibly moving to him as well. He was also a unitarian minister—another person coming from a different walk of life. Along with being a unitarian minister and an authority in music, Dwight was very passionate about the abolitionist movement. He deeply cared about seeing slavery removed, and the lyrics “Chains shall he break / For the slave is our brother” factored into his affection for the song. He translated the song into English and it began spreading just as in France.

Although the song was spreading like wildfire in France, protests within church circles began as word started spreading that the composer Adolfe Adam was Jewish. A Jewish man composing music to a song about Jesus was not well received; it was scandalous. That really showed humanity on full display—even though they could hear and feel the content of this message advancing the kingdom of God and very clearly pointing to Jesus, they couldn’t get past the fact that a Jewish man had some involvement in it. And would rather sabotage the whole thing. But when something gets banned, it becomes very compelling. So it started to grow even more and really started to take root in America.

Several years later, there was a chemist associated with Thomas Edison named Reginald Fessenden. He was very passionate about the development of communication over radio waves—it hadn’t yet been done. And on Christmas Eve in 1906, Fessenden was in front of the microphone and realized it was actually working. For the first time, the voice of a human person was going out beyond what you can hear. Allegedly, he had a little stage fright and didn’t know what to do. So, he read the Christmas story in Luke 2, and then began playing his violin and singing “O Holy Night.” And it became the first song broadcast over the airwaves. The story very clearly shows the intention of God on display. He can work in ways that are so different from what our human minds can contain.

The story is remarkable. God uses the most unlikely or unqualified of characters. Someone of the Jewish religion wrote lyrics about a Savior they didn’t even believe in. This song is a testament to the fact that God uses all things. It’s unlikely that the French parish priest knew what he started. It’s unlikely he heard or even knew it was the first song ever broadcast on the radio. We are so unaware of the things that God is using in our lives.

We measure ourselves so critically by our immediate output and outcome. And the scripture says some people are planting seeds, some people are reaping harvest. We just don't know. But the moments that are right in front of us and the inspiration that we get to do something (especially in God's name), is sacred and it's not wasted. We often think about something we feel called to do, like calling someone on our mind. And when you reach out, they’re like, “Oh, I’m good. I don’t know why you were thinking about me.” And we second guess we’re actually hearing from God if we don't have an immediate outcome. This song teaches me that the humblest of beginnings can be something so transcendently huge, but the person that started it probably has no idea. I think that's important to remember.

There are so many lines within the song that are impactful.  To have an unbeliever write the lyrics “Fall on your knees / O hear the angel voices” and then for another to be able to compose that grand moment musically in the song—it's just mind blowing to me. It’s very obviously a work of God.

Listener Question

Hi, my name is Erica. What is one thing you've had to “fake it until you make it” when you became a solo?
I think there are so many areas that we have to fake it till we make it. I think it's actually a skill that you learn as a solo parent, but it's a skill that if you're not careful, it can actually become a liability because we're not meant to have everything all together. But there are some areas where we just have to be strong. When I was going through my divorce, I was at a company where I definitely had to fake it the whole time. I had to put on a good face and be strong. I was leading a highly visible team in the company —both to the board and higher-ups, and to the outside world. It was a high-driving company; you don't slow down for anything. And it was hard. I had to fake it. I had to keep going. But Solo Parent actually gave me a place to release.

I would say there are necessary places where you have to fake it till you make it. But it’s also necessary to find a safe place to be authentic. I don't know if I have made it, but especially around my kids, I just had to be strong. There were many times I had to instill confidence when I didn't feel confident.

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