France in 1843 was a nation once again ruled by monarchy, this time that of Louis Philippe I, who had come to power after the revolution of 1830. And while Louis was wise enough to adopt the monarchical designation - and more moderate style - of Citizen King, a king he still was.
The heady times following those July days in 1830 had long since faded - along with the new king's moderate ways - and the spirit of the times were becoming those of the rapidly approaching tumult of 1848. Discontent, and revolution, were again in the air.
Responding to a call
It was a simple enough request. Having just renovated the parish organ, the priest of Roquemaure asked a local poet - Placide Cappeau - to compose some verse to commemorate the occasion. But Cappeau was not a simple follower. He was Republican, secular - a man who knew that 1789 was more a state of mind, than a date long past.
Cappeau felt the spirit of 1848 gaining momentum in his world, and the result was the poem Minuit, chrétiens - set to music in 1847 by Adolphe Adam.
Adam's music brought a stirring, emotional component to the poem that has left if with the nickname of the Marseillaise religieuse. And it's easy to understand why. The words, and thrillingly inspirational rendering, leave one feeling overwhelmed - and on the verge of tears; both wrought of the joy of realizing the transformative power of one's active will. Well, at least, that's the feeling one gets from the original French version.
What's in the word?
The English version of Cappeau's poem is better known in the US as Oh Holy Night - composed from the original by an American Unitarian minister in the 1850's. And while a lovely song, the English rendering is completely devoid of the words and ethos that left the French version with its revolutionary nickname.
The French version foreshadows the tumultuous mood of 1848. A mood - a temperament - of defiance, internationalism - an insistence on justice long denied. A sense of the irresistible force behind people moving together toward the realization of hope - through action.
The English version, though, has changed this entirely into a simple declaration of submission and powerlessness. A call to be spellbound by majesty - and nothing more.
Take the very title and first line of the French original: Minuit, chrétiens - c'est l'heure solennelle (Midnight, Christians - it is the solemn hour). Here we have a reminder - a call - a marking of a point at which things must change. The moment of action - for doing something has arrived.
Whereas the English version begins: O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; a simple act of beholding - to remain kneeling.
The declaration Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave - organic to the spirit of 1848 Europe - is an unimaginable inclusion in an American version of the same period.
And the difference in the two version's final exhortation could not be more striking. In English we have a sterile declaration: Christ is lord - praise his name forever. But in the original comes: Peuple, debout! Chante ta déliverance! (people, stand up! Declare your deliverance!) In one a hope to be saved - in the other a call to make it happen through human action.
Minuit, chrétiens is a manifesto - a demand - a call to activity. O holy night - a supplicant's plea - a submission - an admonition to wait.
It's interesting to note that the first singing of Minuit, chrétiens was followed within a year by a strident, purely secular observation that A spectre is haunting Europe; this from a pen that held "waiting" to be pure anathema. Is there really any doubt that this "spectre" is the power of kneeling transformed into standing?
What is the message of Jesus Christ? Is it to merely behold him - or to heed his call, and to follow? One is done from the knees - the other while firmly on two feet. Is his an urging to meekly submit, or to embrace the power to act? Is it - as the last lines of O Holy Night proclaim - about his power - forever; or, as the final lines of Minuit, chrétiens suggest, of ours?