Did you know that “O Holy Night,” a Christmas carol we sing every year, has ties to the abolitionist movement? I didn’t realize this until a few years ago when I heard the song sung. Typically, performers only sing the first or maybe the first two verses; however, this time I heard the third verse, a stanza that can be seen in an abolitionist light, especially during the years leading up to the Civil War.
In 1847, French composer and music critic Adolphe Adam wrote the music “Cantique de Noël” based off of the poem “Minuit, chrétiens” written by Placide Cappeau. Later, in 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister in Boston translated Cappeau’s text and noticed some lines in the third verse that corresponded to his abolitionist beliefs. Sullivan translated the third verse to read:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Of particular interest here, of course, are the third and fourth lines. Reading these, it does not seem unrealistic that someone who ardently argued against slavery in the South would take up the song in relation to the movement. “O Holy Night” has the audience observe Christ’s birth on Christmas day as if they were there. Entwined within this, though, comes a call for equality and respect. “The Redeemer,” Christ will break the chains “for the slave is our brother; and in His name all oppression shall cease.” Arguments about the use of Christianity to “civilize” enslaved individuals and Native Americans aside, these lines fall right in step with the abolitionist movement. In fact, they even make me think about the “Am I not a man and a brother?” medallion.
This all led me to recall Frederick Douglass’s description of the holidays in his Narrative. After relating his fight with Covey, Douglass takes a moment to speak about the purpose of the holiday respite from the enslaved’s and the master’s perspectives. Between Christmas and New Years, the slaves would not have to work in the fields; instead, they either “used or abused it nearly as [they] pleased (81–82). Douglass argues that this practice served as a “safety valve” for the slaves, allowing them “to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity” so they will not rise up and overthrow their masters later (82). Douglass even writes, “From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slaves, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” (82).
The holiday season served as a deceitful time where the master allowed respite and relaxation, only to appear benevolent and generous. By letting the slaves get drunk, the masters worked “to disgust their slaves with freedom by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation,” making them feel as if they have an inability to care and fend for themselves, thus casting the slaveholder as a benevolent caregiver (83). Rather than giving in to the facade of freedom by drinking, playing games, wrestling, and dancing, Douglass suggests that slaves who remained industrious during the period stung his or master by essentially rejecting the favor the slaveholder bestowed.
Slaves, in the North and the South, did participate in various festivities, not just at Christmas. In the North, slaves took part in Pass celebrations during Easter and in “Election Day” activities where the community received a day off and voted for a “leader” who would serve as a liason between them and the white community. These celebrations, like the holidays, provided a release, and some semblance of autonomy. However, the freedom that came with the festivities did not last, and life went back to “normal” soon afterwards.
During this holiday season, listen to the songs you sing and think about their historical relevance. For “O Holy Night,” that historical connection exists within the 1850s and the abolitionist movement, arguing for the rights of enchained slaves. In the comments below, let me know about some songs that may have more meanings than we typically perceive. For more on the holidays and slavery, see Documenting the American South’s post on “The Slave Experience and the Holidays.”
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written By Himself. New York: Signet, 1997. Print.