The very first audible sound ever heard on radio airways happened on Christmas Eve, 1906. Reginald Fessenden--a 33 year old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, did something thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, he spoke into a microphone and began reading from Luke's account of the birth of Christ. Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners, used to coded impulses over tiny speakers, might have thought they were hearing the voice of an angel, just as the shepherds almost 2000 years earlier. After finishing his recitation, Fessenden picked up his violin and played, "O Holy Night." It became the first song ever sent through the airwaves since the angels of heaven rejoiced before the shepherds on that wonderful night on the hills of Bethlehem....
Who wrote this song?
In 1847, a wine merchant from France, Placide Cappeau, made a hobby of composing poetry for his own amusement. Many people had read his poems, including his parish priest who presided over the Catholic church where he sometimes attended. One Christmas, the priest asked Placide if he might try to compose a poem for the annual Christmas mass. Riding in a carriage to Paris, Placide was reading the story of the shepherds of Bethlehem in Luke 2 and the words to "O Holy Night" were written. Placide was impressed with his own work, and thought it needed to be set to music. So he teamed up with a Jewish friend and accomplished musician, Adolphe Adams, to set it to music. The song was an immediate hit and was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. It was only when it was learned that a Jew had written the musical score, the song was denounced as "unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion." Fessenden then walked away from the Catholic church, yet the French people continued to sing it and legend has it that on Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, a French soldier jumped out of his trench. Both sides stared at this "mad man", but boldly standing with his weapon at his side, he lifted his eyes to heaven and sang the beginning of "O Holy Night". After completing all 3 verses, a German infantryman climbed out of his trench and begin singing "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come." The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next 24 hours.
A decade later, an American writer named John Sullivan Dwight brought the song to his country during the Civil War. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight saw something in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. In the third verse he saw, "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." Published in his magazine, Dwight's English translation of "O Holy Night" quickly found favor in America, especially in the Northern states.
Since the very first rendition at a small Catholic mass in 1847, "O Holy Night" has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world and has become one of the most recorded and played spiritual songs.
Requested by a forgotten parish priest, "O Holy Night" was destined for an amazing history:
Written by a wine-merchant poet who would later split from the church;
Given its music by a Jew who did not view Jesus as the son of God;
Stopping a war for a day;
Rallying the conscience of a nation over slavery;
And becoming the very first music to ever be broadcast over the airwaves....by other than an angelic host.