Last week in choir rehearsal, we noticed that the lyrics to the hymn It Came Upon a Midnight Clear aren't quite so Jesus-y as most Christmas songs; and in fact they're kind of weird and depressing. See below.
Now Unitarians do have an annoying habit of changing the lyrics of songs to be more Unitarian, but that didn't seem to be the case here. In fact, I learned upon looking into it, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear is an honest-to-god Unitarian hymn written by a real live Unitarian, Edmund Hamilton. I mean, he's not alive anymore, because he wrote it in 1849, but he was a real live Unitarian minister when he wrote it.
This hymn is interesting among hymns in general and Christmas hymns in specific because it's not particularly warm or fuzzy when you actually pay attention. They're a call to action and a reflection of a grim and frightening reality, rather than describing some idyllic peaceful time in the future or in the past.
I wonder if the song serves to reflect the quandary in which many Unitarians found themselves in the America of the 1850s. Unitarians were vocally opposed to war, but they were also very opposed to slavery. As tensions between the North and South rose and anti-slavery activists were taking more and more direct action, it must have been hard for anybody who loved peace and hated slavery to know what actions and words to choose.
I like the message of this song. I like that it reminds us not just of Christs' birth, but his message.
I'll be profiling a few more Christmas hymns over the next couple of weeks. Or that's the plan anyway. Any requests?
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 blessèd 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.