When I was young, Christmas was, without a doubt, my favorite day of the year. A sensitive child who was easily overwhelmed, I quite literally vomited from all the excitement every Christmas morning, without fail. The tradition was: I would wake up before anyone else and look at all the presents under the tree, run to the bathroom to throw up, and then would take my Santa-filled stocking into my bedroom to start eating candy and playing with the toys contained inside until everyone else woke up. We weren’t allowed to begin opening presents until after my parents were awake and the coffee was brewing.
In my family, the tradition was that gifts were opened one at a time, such that all eyes were on the gift recipient each time a present was opened. As something of a control freak, I gladly took the annual responsibility of handing out the presents one by one, reading the tags aloud. (I remember being horrified the first time I saw a family whose tradition was a free-for-all, with any and all gifts being opened at the same time. To me, this seemed a kind of sacrilege.)
As an adult, Christmas still works basically the same way, but I very much prefer giving gifts than receiving them. The religious basis for Christmas and the significance of the day is not lost on me as an adult. (Rest assured that I also understood the meaning of Christmas as a child, but glittering and colorful presents under a tree certainly took first place in my mind. Here was something immediate. As a child, I understood the birth of Jesus to be more of an historical event, albeit with profound consequences.)
One Christmas sometime after college, I was listening to Christmas music in my car and heard – truly heard – the lyrics of “O Holy Night” for the first time. A chill ran through my body and I felt like I might start crying. I was so impacted by the words to this song that I incorporated a part of my favorite line (“…He appeared and the soul felt its worth…”) into a tattoo that I have on my back. It’s on a scroll just beneath a stained glass panel of the Virgin Mary. For good measure, I paid a professor to reliably translate the words into Latin for me.
Since that time, I’ve done some research on the words. I discovered that the song was originally a poem written by Placide Cappeau, a French wine seller who, at the age of eight had his hand amputated following a tragic accident where he was shot by a friend who was playing with a gun. The poem was written in the early 1800s at the request of a parish priest who wanted to celebrate the church’s acquisition of a new organ. While the words to the song differ somewhat from the words of the poem, the meaning behind it is still basically the same, and still beautiful. It speaks of Jesus as both friend and savior, come to liberate all. To me, this is the meaning of Christmas.
Here, then are the words to the poem, translated into English:
Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
Placide Cappeau, the author of this poem, was an atheist. That the poem behind the Christmas song that elevates my soul to supernatural, theistic heights was written by an atheist is rich in irony. And proof that God has a plan for all of us.