Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Christmas Carols in a Time of Hatred

I can’t remember another Christmas when I felt the ache quite like I do this year. But then again, I never experienced a Christmas where the Ku Klux Klan openly holds rallies and celebrations of the political triumph of their ideals, and where Nazi salutes are proudly given, and Confederate Battle Flags stream from pickup trucks in my own home city. This is a time in which friends of my kids have been bullied and asked when they would be deported. It is a day I honestly never thought I would see, and yet here we are. What decade - or century - is this again? 

[Update Christmas 2018: A mere 1 in 4 white Evangelicals think we have a moral duty to take in refugees. This while complaining about the phony "war on Christmas," a holiday centering on a refugee family. I never thought I would see the day when my former faith tradition would openly embrace anti-Christianity.] 

But there have been times in our history like this before, where the nation was deeply divided over questions of exactly who counts as our neighbor. In fact, some of our most beloved Christmas carols arose in times like these, inspired by the vision of the brotherhood of mankind and love for our neighbor. These carols insisted that, despite what we saw going on in the world, God was yet on the move, and love would ultimately win out over hatred and tribalism. And thus, these songs speak to us today both in their acknowledgement that the world is not what it should be and in their hope that the people that walk in darkness will one day experience that great light.

In this post, I want to highlight four carols, each dating to the decades surrounding the American Civil War, and each in its own way referring to that desire that God would free the enslaved, lift up the oppressed, and restore the world to how it should be. These carols have always spoken to me, and speak to me still, particularly resonating in this particular Christmas season. 

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

This poem was written by Unitarian minister Edmund Sears in 1849. Sears trained as a lawyer, but entered the ministry, later writing a number of influential theological works, the most enduring of which was a commentary on the Gospel of John.

Sears also was a fiery abolitionist, preaching many sermons against slavery, some of which eventually were reprinted as abolitionist tracts. (You can read some here.)  It’s strong stuff. Sears was unafraid to condemn slave owners, not just the institution, and call on them to repent and free their slaves. He was radical in other ways, too, openly preaching the equality of men and women, calling for civil disobedience, and making sharp observations about the evil entrenched in the government of his time. Perhaps his most passionate words invoked the teachings of Christ, specifically the Golden Rule and the need to love all men as our neighbors.

In 1849, saddened by the ongoing wars in Europe and the strife between the United States and Mexico - and recovering from a personal breakdown probably occasioned by extreme overwork - he penned the words to It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, one of my favorite carols, and one tinged with melancholy.

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.

Here is one of my very favorite groups, Chanticleer with a gorgeous rendition of this song. I love the fact that they include the less-known third verse.

Go Tell It On The Mountain

This song is probably the best known Negro Spiritual of all time. It is believed to have originated around the time of the Civil War. Later, it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, often combined with Go Down Moses in a way that highlighted the theme of freedom and deliverance.

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens,
There shone a holy light:
Go, Tell It On The Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, Tell It On The Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo! above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our Saviour's birth:
Go, Tell It On The Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, Tell It On The Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

Down in a lowly manger
Our humble Christ was born
And God send us salvation,
That blessed Christmas morn:
Go, Tell It On The Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, Tell It On The Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

When I am a seeker,
I seek both night and day;
I seek the Lord to help me,
And He shows me the way:
Go, Tell It On The Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, Tell It On The Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall,
And if I am a Christian,
I am the least of all.
Go, Tell It On The Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, Tell It On The Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

I grew up singing this song, and kind of assumed that everyone else did as well. It was surprising, then, when I have done it in church, to find that there are people who didn’t know it. What’s up with that?

Nobody can do this song quite like Mahalia Jackson:

[Side note: I reviewed James Baldwin’s novel by this name here.]

O Holy Night

Oh boy, where to start with this one. This has long been one of my very favorite carols, despite its challenging melody. The history behind it is fascinating.

In 1847, the village priest at Roquemaure, France, asked a man named Placide Chapeau to write a poem for the Christmas Eve service. Like Edmund Sears, Chapeau had trained as a lawyer, before taking over the family wine merchant business and writing poetry in his spare time. Chapeau too was a bit of a radical for his time, an ardent proponent of democracy (not yet fully realized in France at the time), opposed to state-sponsored churches, and a socialist.

Chapeau decided after writing the poem that it really needed to be a song. In selecting a composer, he made a striking decision, asking his friend Adolphe Adam, best known for his ballet works, to write a tune. Adam was less than enthusiastic, because he was not a Christian, but a Jew, and thus didn’t celebrate Christmas. But Chapeau talked him into it, and Adam tried to make the tune reflect the message of the poem.

Not too long after, Chapeau formally broke with the Catholic Church, causing a problem regarding the song. After all, it had become quite popular in France, and people everywhere were singing it. But, it was written by an apparent apostate and a Jew, so it was not tolerable. The French authorities banned it. Which was about as unsuccessful as you might imagine, adding to, rather than subtracting from the popularity of the piece.

The original poem translated more or less literally from the French reads like this:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.
People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

There are some pretty amazing lines in there. “O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness / It is to your pride that God preaches.”

But that isn’t the end of the story. In 1855, John Sullivan Dwight discovered the song, and in his capacity as editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music, a highly respected and influential magazine of its time, published his own revised version.

Dwight was quite the character. A Unitarian minister and a member of the Transcendentalist movement, he was also America’s first serious music critic, and shaped the musical taste and culture in America more than anyone else of his time. He participated in the Brook Farm utopian community (along with George and Sophia Ripley, Charles Lane, and Nathaniel Hawthorne), and advocated strongly for abolition. He also got memorably punked by pianist Louis Gottschalk.

In translating and revising this song, Dwight rewrote some of the lyrics to make them less of an anthem of égalité, and more of a pointed statement in favor of abolition. This did not, shall we say, endear the song to pro-slavery Christians.

But the lyrics as revised do make a couple of important points. First, that we are called as Christians to fight against slavery and oppression. As Isaiah put it, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” The second point is related: brotherhood. The slave, the immigrant, the person outside of our tribe. These are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and we are - without reservation or qualification - to love them as ourselves. Not to enslave or oppress them, not to send them away, not to blame them. To love them as we love ourselves and those within our tribe.

This song remains inspiring today because of its reminder that even though we still pine in sin and error, yonder is breaking, even at this moment, a new and glorious morning, as we embrace Christ’s call to love our neighbor. Here is Dwight’s version of the lyrics:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from the Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

There are far too many outstanding renditions of this song to pick from, but I am going with Pavarotti and Domingo and the original French lyrics.

I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

The final carol in this series is the only one known to have been written during the Civil War itself. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the lyrics (as “Christmas Bells”) on Christmas Day in 1863. He had recently lost his wife to a fire (having lost his first wife in childbirth), and then learned that his son - about all the family he had left - had been seriously wounded as a Union soldier. In fact, his son had joined the army without his father’s blessing, and the two had not had the chance to see each other since. Faced with these losses, and the ongoing bloodbath that would claim half a million lives, Longfellow felt that the times were dark indeed.

Indeed, the nation itself had ruptured, and the reason for the rupture was the insistence that one group of people not only weren’t our neighbors, but indeed, were not fully human. As Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy said in no uncertain terms that the issue in the war was slavery, and that “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its  foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that  the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new  government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Longfellow was strongly in favor of abolition, and put his talents - and money - toward the cause. In 1842, his collection, Poems on Slavery, shone a light on the injustice inherent in the system. He worked with other abolitionists and gave large sums of his own money to support the effort. (The National Park Service publication on his efforts is an interesting read.)

As in our own times, it must have been discouraging for Longfellow to see just how strong hate was in his day. It would probably sadden him to see how it has persisted 150 years later. This poem and song expresses this discouragement without giving way to despair. Longfellow retains his hope that ultimately, the right would prevail, and that those filled with hate and fear would be vanquished by those who choose to embrace love of our fellow man.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!"

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."

In the carol version, only three or four verses are sung, not the entire poem, which is too bad. I think it would be wise of us to remember the context of the original. There are several tunes that can be used for this song. Just to be different, I picked the Jars of Clay version, which uses a less popular tune. I had the chance to hear them live a few years back, and can attest that they are outstanding in person, with great musicianship and tight harmonies.

This Christmas season, may we ponder these things in our heart, and let our hearts overflow in love and kindness toward our fellow man. The world has indeed suffered long, many thousands of years of wrong have weighed us down, and man cannot hear the song of the angels, busy has he is fighting with man. We are indeed seekers, we who look for Christ, and, like him, we proclaim the good news of reconciliation, the breaking of chains, and the inheritance of the earth by the meek, not the powerful. While hate remains strong, we believe that ultimately it will fail, the right will prevail, and we seek to do all we can to spread love and fight hate.


Other things I have written about Christmas:


One more: An interesting comment by Frederick Douglass on how holidays were used to perpetuate slavery is a highlight of this article.


  1. I seem to recall commenting on my blog (which sadly I haven't had time lately to keep up) on one of my Christmas posts that American hymnals usually left out the third verse of Midnight Clear, and how interesting that was because it's the one that obviously references human suffering and verges on pacifism. It's a bit scary now how relevant that ended up being.

    And you know what's even worse than finding out people don't know Go Tell It? Hearing it sung by a roomful of white Presbyterians whose hymnal has removed as much of the syncopation and dotted notes as it could and replaced them with straight eighth notes. How to suck the life out of a song in one easy step.

    1. Gah! It's like Baptists trying to dance, or something. I'm not sure why, exactly, but here in Southern California, most churches outside the Anglican/Episcopal/Methodist/Catholic continuum wholeheartedly embraced Gospel along with the other CCM aesthetics. And that goes for both Charismatic churches and Baptist (or closet Baptist non-denominational) churches equally. Back when I still had time for holiday church gigs, that style was ubiquitous. It's a rich church tradition every bit as much as the classical one, and I'm glad for the variety.

    2. Hey! I'm Cradle Episcopalian; heck, my Dad's family brought the first Anglican charter to what was then New Amsterdam colony. I grew up singing Go Tell It On The Mountain, along with all the stodgy classics in the hymnal. Might have been the fact that we were 20 minutes from Manhattan, might have been the '60s, but this unchurched grownup credits her Episcopalian youth for a lot of her commitment to equality and social justice.

      It is true that when we moved to a wealthy Chicago suburb I found a whole different vibe. I can remember thinking that it felt like people came to compare mink coats.

      But if you know the work of The Controversial Bishop John Shelby Spong -- that's the heart of Episcopalianism I grew up with.

      And a late Merry Christmas to you, and a happy New Year. We drove from Vegas to San Diego and back for our Christmas travels; I thought of you when I saw the signs for Bakersfield. 🙂

  2. Great post as usual. It always makes me think about how Christmas is supposed to be about a time when it seemed as if all hope was lost, only to have God set in motion his plan of redemption, not through the powers that be, but through a humble family in circumstances that were quite controversial.

  3. Excellent! I had not realized how many of these carols were birthed in war.

    Add to these "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Some quick research (thanks, Wikipedia! https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_come,_O_come,_Emmanuel) pulled up the fact that some of its verses, including my favorite, were added in the year 1916. The verse as I learned it sings thus:
    "O come, Desire of Nations, bind
    In one the hopes of all mankind.
    Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
    And be Thyself our King of Peace."

    1. That one is such an interesting amalgam of ancient and modern, with the tune and some verses dating back 700 years. And that is a great verse you quote.