“One Night, One Life, One Song: The Peculiar History of ‘O Holy Night’”
History is an odd and wondrous field in which to run and play. It’s quite serious but also is filled with miracles, surprises and the never-to-be fully resolved or explained. Discoveries change the course of things. Extraordinary lives, moments of courage, unanticipated choices and consequences. It’s a messy, beautiful truth.
I have been dabbling a bit in my own genealogy. I’ve been finding websites and people who share my name—Furr actors, writers, scientists, musicians, war veterans, and, yes, a whole list of Furr criminals. Pictures of the existence, for a while, of a carbonated drink in New Mexico (not sure if it’s still around) called, “Dr. Furr’s Cola.” Gotta get me some of that.
And I discovered an ancestor of mine that I quite like. I believe him to be my great, great grandfather, Allen Furr, born Jul 1820, and died in 1873. He was a man of immense physical strength, fought in the Civil War at age 42, and a recorded interview said this:
His son reported that “Once when his wagon busted a wheel crossing Rocky River he carried it on his back a great distance to have it repaired while his son … stayed with the mules. Allen once won a bet he could hold some huge timbers over his head while serving in the Civil War so he could get a 30 day leave. [But this is the part I liked the best:] Wilson Mathias Furr that he in fact could drink from the bung hole of a 50 gal. keg of whiskey. [bunghole is the hole drilled in a barrel where a cork is placed] Must have been quite a site, a grown man elevating a 50 gallon barrel to drink. I have wondered how many gallons he downed before he’d made his point. Who was going to criticize a man lifting 50 gallons over his head?
I have had so few opportunities to use the word “bunghole,” and since we don’t use barrels anymore the chances were disappearing. Bunghole originally came from the word “bunge,” which meant cork. I came across another man who knew about corks and barrels, a French cooper—a barrelmaker– and winemaker named Placide Cappeau (October 25, 1808 – August 8, 1877). He was born into those two businesses, and made his living by them.
He was a contemporary of my great-great-grandfather. Allen was living in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Placide the French. Cappeau’s life changed at age 9, when playing at a friend’s house. They were horsing around with a gun that went off and cost little Placide his hand. It changed the course of his life. He began to cultivate the life of the mind, art, and literature. He was good enough, and with the help of the guilt-ridden friend who paid half his tuition, to attend university and, even with only one hand, to win a prize in art.
After, of course, he went into the family business and made wine, barrels and corks. But his love was literature, especially poetry. Word people are always being called upon, of course, and so it was that age 39, that his parish priest encouraged him to try his hand at writing a Christmas hymn. He was pretty much a non-attender, a political socialist, and anti-clerical, so it must have been intriguing to get a request, and he accepted the challenge.
He later said the inspiration came to him on a stagecoach ride to Paris, but however it happened, he took inspiration from the nativity story in Luke and imagined it from the vantage point of the night. What resulted was a beautiful poem called, “Cantique de Noelle.” “O Holy Night.”
He was not a musician, so he called upon a dear musician friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to help him. Ace Collins described the musician this way:
His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. [There was one small issue] As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words …represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Isn’t it strange that one of the most beloved songs of Christmas was written by a man who rarely went to church and set to music by a non-Christian Jew? But that is not the end of it. The song became wildly popular, sung all over France, but soon the Catholic Church banned it from use when Capelle openly identified with socialism and left the church. The Archbishop, whose name I think was Maurice de Glenn Beck, ordered it out of worship life because of anti-Catholic and Jewish connections.
Even so, the people loved it. They kept singing it. And eventually, a Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, another contemporary of my great-great-grandfather, found it. Dwight was a transcendentalist and America’s first influential classical music critic and an ardent abolitionist. So, in 1860, on the eve of Civil War, he translated it into English and brought it to American popularity. He was especially taken by the third verse when it says, “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
And so, there it was. A hymn by a socialist barrelmaker became an anti-slavery Christmas hymn through a Unitarian liberal abolitionist, and it began to be sung shortly after Allen Furr was lifting barrels over his head and heading off to war on the wrong side of an American tragedy.
Then there was Reginald Fessenden, a professor. It was on Christmas Eve 1906, that the former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, using a newly developed generator, was able to speak through a microphone and broadcast over the airwaves for the first time. He chose to read the Christmas story in Luke. Ace Collins says
Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel. Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.
It’s a strange little song, isn’t it? There are legends that during World War I that one reckless Frenchman sauntered out of the trenches near the time of Christmas Eve 1914 and began to sing “O Holy Night,” and soon others joined in and the scabbed countryside of blood and barbed wire transformed into a shepherd’s field. When the singing ceased, the Germans answered, not with bombs and bullets, but with another carol. And unofficial truces kept happening. The two sides exchanged gifts, greetings and songs. The commanders were disturbed. How on earth would they be able to resume the extermination of the enemy if they kept talking about peace on earth, good will to men? What kind of war could they have? Commanders ordered Christmas eve shelling, but the tradition continued through the war.
Since the parish priest came to Placide Cappelle, long after the Catholic Church banned it as unfit to sing, and long after my Confederate uncle lifted a barrel, who knows, maybe one the Cappelle family had made, long after Yankees and Confederates killed one another trying to figure out what freedom means, long after the Germans and Frenchmen wept and sang and celebrated, that song keeps being sung around the world.
But isn’t that what Christmas keeps teaching us? This story is not ours to control or suppress. God can choose one life–a poor girl in Palestine and a carpenter husband and be manifested to them. Honored by people the church cannot always abide or fit into its creaky human traditions. Spread by miracles unexpected like wine flowing out of a barrel, out into our wars and our sins and the nights of the human soul. One baby, one night, and then one life after another, going here and there, unstoppable, this radiant light of love and hope. Out through the very air itself, sung around the very earth, so that on that night, it can be heard everywhere.
This simple story is one that touches hearts that even do not like our more generic pill called “religion.” It is not mostly about principles or philosophies or power and might. It is of a life, one life, one night, that comes and turns the course of history, again and again. That’s why a baby, and not manly strength, is the most powerful and unstoppable force history has known, for there is no weapon great enough to defend us from love.
I wrote this piece as a mediation given at the Christmas Banquet at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. The source material for the historical backgrounds came from Collins, Ace. THE AMAZING STORY OF ‘O HOLY NIGHT’ posted on BeliefNet; “Placide Cappeau,” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and material on Allen Furr from http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=bfurr1&id=I1494