the story behind it came upon a midnight clear

Christmas: The Story Behind “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

Hi, friends. I never thought of this carol as a song that focused on angels, but actually, Christ’s birth is only alluded to, whereas angels are referenced in every verse!

Edmund Sears, who served as the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, MA, penned these lyrics in 1849. The carol is usually sung to the tune “Noel” arranged by English composer Arthur Sullivan or the tune “Carol” arranged by American composer Richard Storrs Willis.

Sears was a progressive thinker for his time, condemning slavery and supporting equality between men and women. The year 1849 was a turbulent time–European Revolutions were occurring in waves, and the US was warring with Mexico. Consequently, Sears penned these lyrics in a state of melancholy. He portrays the world as dark and as deaf to the message of “Peace on Earth” in Christ’s birth.

I never noticed how deep the lyrics were before now because, often times, only the first and last verse are sung in church; also, some hymnals exclude the third verse. Reading through all the verses, I appreciate the thoughts and emotions behind this hymn so much more. I will bold and/or italicize the words that strike me the most.

Lyrics

It came upon a 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 splendors fling
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing

I listened to several versions of this song on YouTube; not a single one included all the verses, haha. But this one is pretty, so here ya go. 🙂

Thanks for reading! The last installment of this year’s “Story Behind” posts, which featured carols about angels, will come early next week.

Do you like this song? Do you appreciate the meaning of the lyrics more now, as I do? Let me know in the comments.

12 comments

  1. It’s touching how eerie it can be when we personalize history. Here in Jax, the song Silent NIght was composed by a Catholic Priest. Originally it was a poem composed by a German Monk. And then we have that silly song, Grandma Got ran Over by a Reindeer, from Ocala Florida written by a doctor. At any rate, the Christian songs are really the ones with meaning. Thanks for your article. It means everything this time of year.

    Liked by 1 person

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