Two Favorite American Christmas Carols

Two Favorite American Christmas Carols

 
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” are both 19th century American carols created in the context of war which address its horror directly.

Despite this, both offer hope and a plea for peace.

The former, written by Massachusetts Unitarian minister Edmond Sears includes several verses decrying humanity’s warring ways while predicting a better future. It was created in 1849 after the end of the Mexican-American War, popular but not just, and at a time Europe was in great turmoil.

It includes these words:

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.

But it turns to a more positive, virtually utopian note, which hasn’t
happened yet:

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.

This writer offers here his own new verses to update this carol today:

O hush the noise, you strife-filled souls,
And hear the message clear:
God wills a peaceful time on earth
For all the creatures dear.
Embrace the hope that builds no walls,
The love that knows no fear.
Believe the words the angels sang,
The song of peace we hear.

For justice, love and peace we pray,
Like glorious songs of old.
Embolden us with joy to say…
Mid sorrows, hate untold…
Good will to all, with health imbue
A fragile, struggling earth.
With peace our hearts with love renew,
To show all creatures’ worth.

“I Heard the Bells…”, written Christmas Day 1863, during the American Civil War in which the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oldest son had been severely injured. The narrator’s distress is intense:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song,
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The original carol includes several wrenching verses specific to the bloody
internecine conflict, described as:

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent

Despite sad words the carol also ends affirmatively:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

These two carols illustrate the irony of Christian reality. Until the fourth century Common Era, followers of the Prince of Peace were all pacifists. This changed dramatically after St. Augustine of Hippo developed a “just war” doctrine and Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Another familiar carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!”, although not written in the context of war, affirms “peace on earth and mercy mild.” I share a verse I have written to reinforce this vision:

Sing with them, ye humans bold!
Sing of peace, justice unfold!
Ring the bells of liberty;
Ring them loud ‘til all are free.
Ring and sing and dance and shout;
Send oppressive tyrants out.
Swords to plowshares let us make;
Food, not arms, for Jesus’ sake.
Hark the herald angels sing:
The Prince of Peace is still our king.

Readers should feel free to use the verses I have shared.

Submitted by Robert O’Sullivan

Review & Commentary

  • Peace Lutheran

    I thoroughly enjoyed singing and preaching on Bob O’Sullivan’s refreshing and potent lyrics for “A Midnight Clear”. Our congregation “got” both the soulful peace message and the essential commitment this Babe’s Birth is all about. Bob, thanks for the joy and the poetry!

  • Stephen Funck

    Many thanks, I knew about Longfellow but not the other. Loved hearing from old friend and classmate Bob. Although not in favor of blanket statements. Not all were pacifists, some Christians even were soldiers. Heard in a Christmas message the reminder the Baby was born to be brutally, cruelly sacrificed. Look at Him, hold Him with His blood on our hands.

    • Robert O’Sullivan

      As author of this piece I stand corrected. Blankets are better for warmth than truth. I do not claim to be an expert on early Christianity but think I would be safe to say most early followers of Jesus were pacifists regarding state-sponsored violence, with more than a few being violent against perceived heretics. Good to hear from you, Steve.