There’s a mood to so many Christmas carols and songs that’s a bit complicated to name. There’s like this expectation of good times and yet there’s also this longing.
Songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” really capture that elusive feeling. Sadness, but not quite sadnss. Longing. A tinge of nostalgia maybe. But still a sense of hope.
The carol that captures this feeling the most to me is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
And the history of this song speaks so deeply to my heart — to the place of complicated feelings.
Edmund Sears penned the five stanza poem in 1849 at the outset of the Mexican-American war and following a serious personal nervous breakdown and period of depression.
This beautiful carol doesn’t overlook life’s hardships. It names “life’s crushing load” and “painful steps.” Sears acknowledges the long strain of “two thousand years of wrong; and man, at war with man….”
This song invites me to not simply embrace a fake Hallmark version of Christmas or the holiday season. It makes room for grief.
Grief for loved ones no longer with us.
Grief for strained and unhealthy relationships.
Grief for the way things should’ve been.
This Christmas Carol makes beautiful and sacred space for this elusive feeling I’ve been describing — melancholy. And it reminds me that it’s okay to feel melancholic during the holidays. It’s okay to feel however you feel during the holidays.
Christmas isn’t an invitation to forget or neglect the realities of your world or the world.
Hymnologist (again, that’s somehow a job) Ken Sawyer notes that this carol is remarkable as it doesn’t merely focus on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem; rather, it focuses on the now or Sears’ own time and his contemporary issues.
By doing so “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” facilitates a sonic and visceral space for our own feelings during the holidays and it makes room within Christmas to deal with contemporary issues — like what Sears’ described as the "sin and strife” of the horrifying colonial and imperialist American invasion of Mexico.
Christmas, this carol reminds me, is also an invitation to see and notice the hardships and heartbreak of “man at war with man” and how the whole world is affected by hubris and imperialism.
But the carol doesn’t just end in naming or making space for the hard, or for melancholy, or imperialism. We are all beckoned forward. Sears’ words lure us “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.” It is a glorious song of old. A love song that invokes a sense of angels bending near the earth and touching harps, singing peace on earth and goodwill to all.
In fact, in the midst of noise and strife, we are called to do more than simply listen to the love song of the angels. Yes, listen to melody. Yes, hear the the angels sing. And then join in the chorus.
By singing with the angels we find the calling to look towards and to create the days the prophets foretold, days of peace covering the earth. When the whole world harmoniously gives back this song that the angels sing.
On this fifth day of Christmas may you feel encouraged to name life’s crushing load. May you feel invited to feel however you feel, even grief and melancholy. May you rest beside the weary road. And, may you hear the angels sing.