Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.
Knee metaphors are for humans at our humblest: Fall on your knees. Know your smallness in the universe.
Sometimes, this act of falling is a response to tragedy or cruelty. But sometimes, it is awe. These are the knees of “O Holy Night”: wonderstruck, joyous, and yes, a little wobbly. Fall on your knees, the song commands. Jesus has been born, and even the angels are singing. A thrill of hope; the weary soul rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. This is no normal night. It’s a time to brace, to get close to the ground. Oh, night divine.
It’s this physicality that makes “O Holy Night” so fascinating. The imagery of the song is powerful: the stars brightly shine, the very world lays “in sin and error pining.” It’s easy to imagine the dark, dark Bethlehem night, a stunning planetarium sky. Amid all this poetry, what do humans do, according to the song? They lower themselves, trying to find a bit more stability. This reaction seems right. It’s a posture of openness, rather than knowing, because on that night, who could have guessed what was to come?
Often, this humility is lost in the singing. I mentally associate “O Holy Night” with sopranos like Céline Dion and Whitney Houston, who dramatically trill the song to unbelievable heights, a full orchestra behind them. It’s also been Josh Groban-ized, lyrically transformed into a full-blown Hallmark movie climax. These renditions are impressive, and they have been popular. But the singers are not on their knees. They make the song less by performing it as more than what it is: a divine gutpunch, a breathless celebration of a world fundamentally changed.
In 1855, the American Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight translated the song from its original French, which had been composed a few years earlier. The first version referred to “kneeling people,” but Dwight gave the knees greater prominence, translating the line Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance as a more urgent call to supplication. Like many of his contemporaries in Boston, Dwight was a transcendentalist, so perhaps he would disagree with a read of the song as an ode to sin. To him, music was less about vulnerability and emotion than intellectual stimulation; as he wrote in a November 1870 essay for what was then The Atlantic Monthly:
The truest feeling, such as true art, true music breathes and makes appeal to, is of a more intellectual temper. Heart quickens brain; then thought reacts on feeling, and carries it up to a sense of perfect order, to a holy love and yearning after unity.
A yearning for unity: It’s not quite praise of brokenness. But at the very least, it seems like a subtle nod to the power of music to make us feel humble.
More than 150 years later, at least one artist has captured this feeling. There are many reasons to adore Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, but his version of “O Holy Night” is among the foremost. Stevens is an atypical Christian music maker: He often sings about God, even when it isn’t Christmas, but he never seems preachy. He seems fragile. He seems like he needs Jesus’s love.
Savor the insistent plucking of the banjo, the slightly-out-of-tune male-and-female chorus, the high notes not quite hit! The awkward recorder interlude is a Sufjan signature, and it’s fitting here: What are recorders if not the frailest of wind instruments? And then there’s that line. Fall on your knees, Sufjan crows, weaving in and out of the vowels. Stop performing; listen. Hear the angel voices.
People don’t often declare whole nights divine, except in a passing, literary way. The holiness of that night in Bethlehem was not literary, but literal; it was magical, and full of promise. It’s comforting to think that someone like Sufjan, so thoroughly contemporary and of our time, knows what to do in the event of a holy night. Everyone’s knees could use some practice.