Behind the Carols: O Holy Night

Hymn writing isn’t often done for the money, and so because of that, many hymn writers had second jobs. Placide Cappeau, the writer of “O Holy Night,” was actually better known for most of his life as Placide Cappeau, the one-handed lawyer wine merchant.

Placide started life as the son of a vintner, a wine maker. As such, he was expected to take over the family business in time. But a childhood accident seemed to put that in danger. At 8 years old, Placide and his friend Brignon were playing with a gun, when the gun went off, shooting Placide in the hand. The doctors decided that the hand needed to be amputated, leaving Placide with a stump at the wrist.

Brignon’s father felt so bad that he put up money for Placide’s tuition to a local school, hoping that through academics Placide could be able to the make the money that he would have as a vintner (for now that seemed an impossible occupation for a one handed man). Placide threw himself into his work, gaining degrees in literature and then in law.

But wine was always at his heart, and while Placide couldn’t make the wine anymore, he could certainly sell it. He spent his days selling wine all over France and his evenings writing poetry. On the occasion of his church installing a new organ, his priest asked Placide if he would write a poem in celebration of its installation. The poem that he wrote would come to be known in English as “O Holy Night”.

The amazing thing was that Placide was never known for his religious fervor, and some actually postulate that he wasn’t much of a Christian before he was asked to write this poem. It seemed like being asked to put his one very talented hand to the task of writing the poem forced him to consider who had given him that hand and that talent. His life had taken one strange turn after another, but it landed him metaphorically at the cradle in the manger, at a story that gave the topsy-turvy story of his own life some meaning.

And that is what the story of the cradle in the manger does to us all, it gives our strange lives meaning, it shows us that no matter what befalls us – success or tragedy, that there is a Savior who came upon a Holy Night to redeem our crazy lives and make them beautiful.

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