It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

Notes on the Carol:
It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

"Behold the angels of God ascending and descending."
Genesis 28:12

"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified."
Luke 2: 8-9.


Among the most beautiful of our Christmas hymns, "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear" was reportedly written on a cold, snowy day in December, 1949, by the Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876), the young, retiring pastor of the First Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. It was published in on December 29, 1849 in The Christian Register. This poem was remarkable in several respects. First, while social concerns are a common theme among the Unitarians, belief in the divinity of Christ is unusual. Secondly, New England had long been an area where Christmas was not celebrated. In the mid-1600s, the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas; those found violating this law could be fined five schillings. As late as 1870, children who missed school on Christmas Day in Boston could be punished and possibly expelled. Workmen missing work were also subject to punishment by their employers.

R. Storrs Willis, Study #23 (1850)The next year, the tune "Study No. 23," a setting for the hymn "See Israel's Gentle Shepherd Stand," was written by Boston composer Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), who is said to have worked as an editor at the New York Times. It was published in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies (New York: Clark, Austin, & Smith, 1850), p. 93. Some sources describe Willis as a friend of Dr. Sears, and that it was Sears that asked Willis to compose a melody for it.

Shortly thereafter, the tune, now with the title "Carol," was re-arranged to fit the meter of Sears' poem, possibly by Willis, although some write that Uzziah Christopher Burnap (1834-1900) was responsible. According to Christmas historian William Studwell, by 1860, the tune was adapted by Willis to fit the lyrics of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. Willis had studied music at Yale, and later in Europe with Felix Mendelssohn, among others. It is also written that Willis was an eminent editor and critic for the New York Tribune, The Albion, and The Musical Times.

It_Came_Upon_The_607.gif (183839 bytes) The setting on the left is from Charles L. Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #607.

This poem was not the first Christmas poetry by Sears. He had written other Nativity lyrics, including Calm On The Listening Ear of Night (1834), as well as several books on religious topics. In addition, he was the editor for the Boston-based Monthly Religious Magazine from 1859 to 1871.

It is said that Rev. Sears was uncomfortable with the public praise that his hymn generated, saying he preferred to lead a quiet life in some half-forgotten parish according to the notes written by William L. Simon in the Readers Digest Merry Christmas Songbook.

It has been reported that this hymn was written at the request of his friend, W. P. Lunt, a minister in Quincy, Massachusetts.

In England, the most popular setting is the Arthur Sullivan arrangement of "Noel" from Mary Palmer and John Farmer, eds., Church Sunday School Hymn-Book (London: Church of England Sunday-School Institute, 1892), #211 (See Left). Elizabeth Poston writes that "Noel" is related to "Eardisley," an English folk tune collected in Herefordshire. See The English Hymnal, 601.

In the Third Musical Edition of The Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1890). No. 90, p. 71, the hymn was set to "Flensburg," with the notation "Adapted from Spohr." This hymn first appeared in the first edition of Bishop Edward Henry Bickersteth's Hymnal Companion, 1870. (See Right) Sears wrote to Bickersteth, "Though I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the divinity of Christ." It_Came_Upon-Hym_Companion-3rd_Mu_Ed-1890-no90.jpg (104183 bytes)

The fifth verse has long been a source of discomfort among editors and critics, especially the fourth line:

For lo! the days are hastening on
    By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever circling years
    Shall come 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. [Emphasis added]

Critic Elizabeth Poston wrote:

Line 4 of stanza 5 has been slightly amended in accordance with modern practice inimical to the 'age of gold', so avoiding a reference inappropriate to our time without damage to the moving sincerity of the hymn as a whole.  The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (London: Penguin, 1970), p. 30.

The line was re-written to "Comes round the day foretold," as is the case in several other hymnals and carol collections. Occasionally, the verse will be completely re-written, or simply omitted. Personally, I don't have a problem with that line; indeed, as my health continues to decline, I am increasingly looking forward to that "age of gold."

William Studwell regarded this hymn as among the first in the Second Golden Age of Christmas carols. In the coming years, numerous carols and hymns would be written in the United States, including:

Robert Guy McCutchan wrote "It is one of the first of the carol-like hymns that seem to have sprung from American poets. Hymns stressing the social message of Christmas -- 'Peace on earth, good will toward men' --  are distinctly American." See McCutchan, Our Hymnody, A Manual of the Methodist Hymnal. Second Edition. (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1937), p. 127.

Ron Clancy, author of the Christmas Classics series of Christmas carol books, has now created a number of "The Story Behind The Music" YouTube videos recounting the histories of numerous Christmas carols, including this carol.

The Stories Behind The Music Of
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

For links to all of Clancy's carol videos, go to
Christmas Classics Videos

I do not have any financial or other relationship with Ron Clancy, The Christmas Classics, or YouTube.


Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols

William C. Egan, The History of Carols

Peter Hughes, Biography of Edmund Hamilton Sears, from "The Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography," an on-line resource of the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society.  

The Hymnuts

Robert Joseph, The Christmas Book (New York: McAfee Books for the Lorenz Press, 1978.)

Larry Marietta's Music Notes, Sunday Morning Services at FCCB (First Congregational Church of Berkeley), December 14, 1997

Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, A Manual of the Methodist Hymnal. Second Edition. (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1937)

Keyte and Parrott, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (London: Penguin, 1965)

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003)

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)

"It Came Upon The Midnight Clear," [Edward Henry Bickersteth, Charles Vincent, The Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer. Third Edition, Revised and Enlarged. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1870, 1876, 1911), Hymn 90, pp. 62-63. Text only; no music. Four verses.


If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.