Advent Stories: O Holy Night

Helen Fessenden (1941)
James E. O’Neal (2007)

Helen in the late 1800s when she first met her husband.

HELEN: The year was 1906. Ships bobbed in the Atlantic that stormy Christmas Eve, monitoring the primitive radios that could only deliver a litany of dots and dashes, the stutter-slow letters of Morse code.

Until the charged air filled with…music. Something no one had heard before. Operators blinked in astonishment. What magic was this?

And then the deep, rich voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden introduced himself and read from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, surrounded by wires and meters and the radiating heat of the microphone, Fessenden smiled, raised a battered violin to his chin and began to play, even singing along for one verse. The strains of the beloved carol “O Holy Night” broke the silence in the first ever radio broadcast outside of a laboratory.

“O night divine” indeed.

I was there too, watching. Celebrating my husband’s achievements, even if I didn’t understand the years of technological labor it had taken to get there. I remember it like it was yesterday. My Reginald. The first broadcaster.

JAMES: The Christmas Eve Broadcast of 1906. It’s like one of those Hallmark Channel holiday movies, you know? All that was missing was an unexpected snow and George Bailey hearing the program from the bridge and deciding that life was worth living after all.

Except after months of research for the centennial, I’ve concluded that it’s all a lie. Or most of it, anyway.

HELEN: I wrote a biography of my husband after his death because people were beginning to forget. Can you imagine? In a time where rumors of war with Germany make radio innovation all the more important, no one seemed to remember what my husband did. The hundreds of patents he held after being trained by Edison himself. His inventions and achievements and accomplishments…all gone.

Once the book was published, though, things changed. Of all the pages in my modest little biography, the Christmas Eve broadcast was the story that caught on. Reporters began picking it up, running holiday stories about the milestone. I saw my husband’s name in print once more. And at the time of year I missed him most. What a gift that was.

JAMES: “O Holy Night.” That’s the song he played—allegedly. Interesting choice. I researched every scrap of information on the broadcast, including the background on the composer and writer of the song, looking for anything of interest for my article.

The author of the text was a French winemaker with little interest in religion at all, and the music was composed by his friend of Jewish descent. And yet, their carol is widely accepted by true believers in a faith they did not share.

In a way, they were lying too.

HELEN: How beautiful that song is. My favorite. That’s why Reginald chose it, you know.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

JAMES: My wife, Pamela, tirelessly helped me search the records. And I remember her turning to me after we’d combed over every word of Fessenden’s journals and articles, and saying, quietly, “It never happened, did it?”

I could only look at the data—logs from other radio professionals at the time, newspaper archives, other claims of the first broadcast that went unchallenged, detailed descriptions of Fessenden’s career—all missing an account of this historic moment.

All except for one letter that Fessenden wrote on his deathbed, quoted a few years later by his beloved wife Helen.

“What do you think?” I asked my wife. “Did she make it all up to ensure her husband was not forgotten?”

And Pamela paused. “I think,” she finally said, “that she could have.”

HELEN: Reginald talked about the broadcast again, near the end, telling the story to Reggie Jr. and the grandchildren. There were other more important achievements, of course, with greater fanfare and louder controversy. But this was a story, and stories speak to us in a special way.

It was a lovely moment. Full of peace, with family near. One last Christmas together.

JAMES: Do you know the quote his wife Helen chose to include in the front matter of her husband’s biography?

“After all, what one wants to know is not what people did, but why they did it—or rather why they thought they did it; and to learn that you should go to the men themselves. Their very falsehood is often more than another man’s truth.”

You have to ask yourself, why that quote, from a woman who spends the rest of the volume loyally defending and bragging about her husband? It’s as if even she knew that sometimes we trick ourselves. We believe we’re telling the whole truth or acting out of pure motives.

But we’re not.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining” indeed.

HELEN: I visited his grave this morning. Traced my fingers over the inscription there: “His mind illuminated the past. And the future. And wrought greatly for the present.” And below it: “I am yesterday, and I know tomorrow.”

Now, thanks to me, tomorrow will know him as well.

JAMES: In the end, I didn’t tear him to shreds. Just said that maybe Fessenden, looking back several decades, got some of the details mixed up, and what he was really thinking of was the 1906 laboratory demonstration that we know happened. It was the least I could do, because the man was a genius, one who doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserved.

But I’ve learned something writing this article: We are deeply capable of self-deception. All of us.

There’s an uplifting thought for your holidays. The anti-Hallmark movie. If I wrote it into a screenplay, it would be rejected after the first few pages. We prefer the simple version of Fessenden’s broadcast, one that hits all of those familiar Hollywood underdog beats. And my story? Well, there aren’t enough heroes.

That’s the beautiful thing, though. There aren’t enough heroes in real life either. There are just weak and wandering men and women like you and me.

We’re brilliant in our innovation and reckless in our arrogance. We want to believe the best of ourselves and the people around us and are constantly betraying and being betrayed. We are aspirational in our storytelling…and possibly deceptive as well.

Reginald Fessenden’s story is all of ours, really.

HELEN: Each time “O Holy Night” comes on the radio, I hope there are people who remember that the very first time was my brilliant Reginald drawing his bow across strings. Drawing the world together with music.

(This is the third in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true origins of beloved Christmas carols. To take a look at the real James’s article on Fessenden’s broadcast, go here. To read past narratives, go here.)

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