I love “O Holy Night.”
I write that unironically. I’m not a Christian. Heck, I’m even skeptical of the historicity of Jesus, and even if he were historical I doubt there’s any truth to the Nativity story as related in Christian mythology. Yet, in the pantheon of Christmas songs, “O Holy Night,” a song explicitly about the night Jesus was born, ranks highly for me. I have 31 different versions, running over 2 hours consecutively, on my hard drive. When the song hits me right, when it’s done sensitively, I get weepy. I find it quite moving.
But not the Arcade Fire version. They sound like they were drunk off their asses, and it’s hard to take it at all seriously.
What about “O Holy Night” do I find so appealing? The tune, certainly. It’s a lovely tune, an evocative tune, whether it’s done on cellos, guitars, piano, harp, even bagpipes. There’s a gentleness to the tune that carries you along and sweeps you away, and it’s hard to believe that the tune is only 150 years old instead of something that’s existed forever.
Also, though Jesus isn’t my myth and Christianity isn’t my belief, I find the chorus — more specifically, the first refrain, the part that begins “Fall on your knees!” — quite powerful.
Such is the power of art. It doesn’t have to be literally true to have an emotional power. There were never Hobbits, nor a Mount Doom or a Ring of Power, yet the ending of The Return of the King leaves me bereft. There was never a Roy Hobbs, he never played baseball for the New York Knights, yet the end of the The Natural (film, I should caution, as the novel’s ending is quite different) is simply breathtaking.
In the same way, I can — and do — love “O Holy Night.”
And if you want a really lovely version, I recommend the one by Sleeping at Last. The Eisley version is solid, too.
Edited to Add: Three weeks after posting this, in the run-up to Christmas, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of Soul Music about “O Holy Night.” I shared a link to the program on Facebook, and here’s what I had to say about it:
The BBC’s Soul Music program this year takes a look at the song and presents some stories of people and their connection to the song, from an Anglican archbishop who spent Christmas in a hospital stricken with pneumonia to a woman who sang it spontaneously in Washington’s Union Station to a Philadelphia aid worker who found new meaning in the song when she helped some homeless people have a real Christmas.
It’s a nice half hour listen. I might’ve gotten teary eyed a few times.
It’s a nice program. Yes, it scratches the surface of the song’s origin (leaving out that the French writer was an atheist and the American translator a Unitarian transcendentalist), but it’s mainly about the personal effect and meaning the song has for people.
I was listening to it again yesterday (ie., December 23rd, as I write this), and it’s a really lovely program.