Minuit Chrétien is est le chants de Noel – beautiful and culturally meaningful.
There is hardly a dry eye to be found when the French hear the singing of “Minuit Chrétien”. The powerful French lyrics are sung to the music of the familiar “O Holy Night”.
A history about French Christmas was published in 1980, by World Book, titled “Christmas In France“. I must have found the book a long time ago in a sale, but, frankly, I can’t recall exactly where it was obtained. Nevertheless, I’m glad to refer to the many historical and traditional stories reported in the full color and information filled pages. I was especially delighted to find the history about the origins of French Christmas carols, including the history of the inspirational “Minuit Chrétien”.
Tradition signing of carols is rooted in religious dramas called mystery or miracle plays, performed in France during the Middle Ages. In fact, the plays were acted-out versions of the life of Jesus and of the saints. Their purpose was to teach the Bible to people who were largely unable to read or write. French Christmas carols or “noëls” were written about that time.
Initially, the noëls were hymns and solemn melodies sung in Latin. Eventually, in about the 1400s, a new sort of noël began to be heard. This new form was sung in local dialects and the lyrics were put to tunes familiar in popular songs. Sometimes, the verses were not religious. Moreover, the songs were included in the rural shepherds’ plays and the noëls were sung both as key parts of scenes in the performances and during the segues,leading from one scene to another.
Indeed, the carols were so popular that whole collections of them, called “bibles de Noël ” were published between the 1500’s and the 1700’s. Then, by the beginning of the 1700’s, the French Christmas songs became gay and lively. In the 1800’s, the noëls began to be more pompous in tone, consistent with the political environment in France, at that time.
Of all the French Christmas carols, the most popular is undoubtedly “Minuit Chrétien!”, sung to the tune of the familiar “Oh, Holy Night”.
Lyrics to the famous international carol are attributed to Placide Cappeau, who was the mayor of a small French town named Roquemaure.
Cappeau wrote the words while he was travelling as a wine salesman. One day, a religious of the town asked if Monsieur Cappeau would write some of his verses for a Christmas carol. In fact, the curate wanted them to be performed by a lady named Madame Laurey, who happened to have a fine singing voice. Consequently, on his next wine selling journey, Cappeau found the time to write the words to the poem he called “Minuit Chretiens!”. Of course, Madame Laurey liked the lyrical poem and took it to her friend, the composer Adolphe Adam. He was ill at the time and decided to distract himself from this sickness by composing the melody for the Cappeau poetry. Madam Laurey sang the carol for the first time on Christmas Eve, in 1847, in a little church in Roquemaure.
Today, in French churches, especially when the liturgy is in French, the “Minuit Chrétien!” is traditionally performed at Midnight Mass. Honestly, the singing of Minuit Chrétien at Midnight Mass (especially when performed in French) is a solemn and quite moving moment in the traditional religious celebration.
This particular refrain is compelling:
Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance
Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur!
Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur!
Lyrics and the translated verses from French to English are available at this site.