So last week I started out talking about a friend who wondered if anyone really liked Spike Jones’s All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth, and I ended promising to tell you this week about a really inappropriate Christmas song that you’ll even hear sung in churches. But before I do that, I just want to devote a little time to a song that just grates on me.
My daughter says that had the words to this song been “Last August I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away…” it would’ve died a nice quiet death, and been forgotten by most of us. But because George Michael was smart enough (or evil enough) to put the word “Christmas” in it, he’s been raking in the royalties every December since 1984, as just about everyone who’s ever held a microphone has recorded a version of it.
And the really annoying thing is that this song is an earworm. It just has one of those tunes that you can’t stop humming, no matter how much you hate the song.
But enough about that, I want to get to that inappropriate song.
It started out simply enough, with a poem. A poem that Placide Cappeau, a local wine merchant and poet, had written at the request of his parish priest for the Christmas mass. But as he finished the piece, he decided that this was more than a beautiful poem; it had the potential to be a beautiful song. However, since he wasn’t a musician himself, he asked one of his friends for help. This friend happened to be one Adolphe Adam, a well-known composer of orchestral works.
However beautiful the words to this poem were, it presented a special set of problems for Adam. For you see, coming from a Jewish family, it was for a day he didn’t celebrate and about a man he didn’t believe was the son of God. Nevertheless, he set Cappeau’s beautiful words to an equally beautiful melody, and was performed three weeks later at the Christmas Eve mass.
The song was an immediate hit, spreading from Cappeau’s small town and becoming one of the most beloved songs in France. And then everything hit the fan. It began when Cappeau walked away from the church and joined the socialist movement. It got worse when church leaders discovered that Adam was Jewish. That was enough to cause them to start denouncing the song as unfit for use in church services because of its “lack of musical taste” and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Seems to me that they were really arguing over its “pedigree” than any issues of musical taste or religious spirit.
That was really too bad, because even though it had been banned from use in church, the French people continued to sing it in their homes anyway, and it took on a life of its own.
In 1855, Unitarian minister and publisher John Sullivan Dwight published an English version of the forbidden French song here in the United States, where the abolitionist sentiments of the third verse made it particularly popular in the North during the Civil War, and is now one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world.
What song is this that was once deemed inappropriate for church use, but can now be heard in churches around the world on Christmas Eve? Perhaps the fact that it was written in France already gave it away. Perhaps it was the name Adolphe Adam that did it for you. And if you still don’t know what the song is, I’ll tell you.
It’s Cantique de Noël, or as we say in English, O Holy Night.
Remember this the next time someone tells you that a particular piece of music is inappropriate for church. Time may well prove them wrong.