Note—Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day deserve bonus two-fer entries!
In churches around the world this evening announcement carols will be central to the services. Many are bold and glorious whether sung by massed choirs or by congregations that know them by heart. Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah are two of the grander example, although there are plenty of others in Christmas song books but my personal favorite is much more modest.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of the oldest and most beloved of American Christmas carols. It also never mentions the Christ Child but instead is all about the announcement that the angles made to the shepherds. It was a not-so-subtle message for Americans who had just concluded a war that the author considered horribly unjust and immoral.
The Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister wrote the words to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear to celebrate "Peace on earth, goodwill to men" in the wake of the Mexican war. Its popularity has grown and faded depending on American involvement in other wars.
Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears was the minster of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts in 1849. It was a small congregation and a not-very-important-pulpit in the insular world of New England Unitarianism. But like many of his peers Sears had been an ardent opponent of the just concluded Mexican War. He considered it indefensible land grab by a powerful nation against a weak one. It also had ramifications for his opposition to slavery. The most voracious War Hawks intended the newly conquered lands to eventually enter the Union as slave states and thus swing the balance of power in the nation permanently to the South. And like other Unitarian ministers, the war confirmed Sears in a growing pacifism.
The war had concluded with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed in February 1848 and ratified by the two nations by that May. Under its terms Mexico lost nearly half of its territory including all or parts of the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
It was still weighing heavily on Sears’ mind when his friend Rev. William Parsons Lunt of First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts asked him to write something for a Sunday school pageant. Sears played and sang the song to friends and parishioners in his own parlor on Christmas Eve of 1849. It isn’t known to what tune it was sung.Dutch painter Govaet Flink based his 1639 painting of the Angels visiting the shepherds on Rembrandt van Rijn's famed etching first issued two years earlier.
Sears ever after called carol his “little angels song.”
The next year Richard Storrs Willis, a composer who trained under Felix Mendelssohn, wrote the melody that quickly became most widely known tune to the song used in the United States. With that tune it was added to the hymnals of not only the Unitarians, but Universalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and most other Protestant denominations.
But in England and the Commonwealth nations It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is sung to a melody called Noel by Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.Ella Fitzgerald's first 1960 Christmas album was an instant classic and she followed it up with a live LP in 1967. Innumerable compilation albums have been issued based on this material and on recordings made from radio and TV appearances.
Today we will enjoy the version by the great Ella Fitzgerald whose albums of Christmas music have become almost as important to the canon of great holiday recordings as those of Bing Crosby.
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