It was written in 1847 in France by a poet named Placide Cappeau, when he was asked by the parish priest to write a poem for Christmas mass. December 3, while on a trip to Paris, Cappeau pondered Luke 2 and pictured himself there on the night of the Savior's birth. Using that imagry as inspiration, he wrote "Cantique de Noel". Though only asked to write a poem, Cappeau felt it should have music, so upon arriving in Paris he asked his friend Adolphe Adam to compose a tune.
The song quickly became a Christmas favorite, though it suffered through some persecution as it was banned by the Church because it's author later became a bit of a rebel with strong anti-slavery views, and it's composer was accused of being a Jew. But the song could not be kept down, and continued to be sung and loved by the masses.
It made it's way to America in 1855 when it was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister and journalist who was drawn to the implied abolitionist tone of the song. It was Dwight that translated Cappeau's words to say,
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,O Holy Night quickly became a favorite in the US.
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Of note is that on Christmas Eve 1906 a Canadian (yes, Canadian) inventor in Massachusetts, Reginald Fessenden, played O Holy Night on a violin for the first ever AM radio broadcast. He also read from Luke 2 and played Handel's "Largo" on a phonograph.
O Holy Night is one of my favorite Christmas songs, but one of its weaknesses is its difficulty. It's often sung by those who should have passed on the opportunity, as demonstrated in this hilarious rendition. Granted, that version was done badly on purpose, but I often prefer instrument-only versions to those that are sung. I enjoy listening to the power of the music, and silently supplying the words on my own.
The Amazing Story of O Holy Night