It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Two countries separated by a common language? Whether you attribute this quip about the relationship between Britain and the USA to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill, it doesn’t really get to the nub of the matter: that they’re two countries separated by their Christmas carol tunes might be a more telling distinction between them.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is another example of this phenomenon: of the ten carols featured so far, seven of them are reportedly sung to different tunes in England and the USA, and this makes it eight out of eleven. It is an American carol, and was written as a poem in 1849 by Edmund Sears (1810-1876), then set to music by Richard Willis in 1850. The carol spread across the English speaking world, but in 1874 Arthur Sullivan (of the operatic partnership Gilbert and Sullivan) set it to alternative tune based on an old English folk melody, and the rest is history as they say.
Edmund Sears captures the elemental message of the nativity and relates it to the modern world. The message told in the gospels has become so bound up in its own traditions, ceremony, mythology even, that it can be easy to lose sight of the message in the bustle and pressure of contemporary life. Yes, the “contemporary” of 150 years ago is a lot different from the “contemporary” of today, but the references to “the weary world“, “man at war with man” and “beneath life’s crushing load” describe a world that we can recognise. Sears just asks us to take a moment, “rest beside the weary road / and hear the angels sing.”
Sears was war-weary of the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, and was yet to witness the devastation of the American Civil War (1861-1865). He was born in Massachusetts and trained as a lawyer in New York before attending Harvard Divinity College and becoming a preacher. He attained some notoriety in theological circles in the 1850s for his tirades against slavery in the south and condemnation of slave owners as evil; he was also an advocate of equal rights for women.
It seems telling somehow that the clergymen who write these carols are all on the humanitarian gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild end of the theological spectrum rather than the hellfire-and-brimstone end. Sears had the angels on his side, and he is on the right side of history. Let’s ignore his comb-over and celebrate him as one of the good guys.
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