Three Beloved Christmas Carols and the Stories Behind Them

Three Beloved Christmas Carols and the Stories Behind Them

What do a discouraged pastor, an orphaned newspaper editor, and a traveling clergyman have in common?

They wrote some of the most beloved Christmas carols in our history.

You have probably heard and sung these carols a hundred times or more, but do you know the story behind them?

If not, then you’re about to discover it.

1. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

The year was 1849, and Massachusetts pastor Edmund Sears was having a rough time of it.

For one thing, the United States had just emerged from the Mexican-American War.

Although America had won, many considered the war to have been unjust. Thousands of lives had been lost in the process.

Despite this conclusion to the conflict, the nation could hardly be described as peaceful.

America had acquired new territories from Mexico as a result of the peace treaty, and that only served to inflame tensions over the issue of slavery.

The debate was becoming more and more heated, and it would eventually lead to the Civil War.

Not only was the country in a state of turmoil, but Reverend Sears himself had undergone a series of personal setbacks.

He had been forced to leave his former pastorate after physical and mental illness left him unable to continue his duties.

By 1849 he had recovered well enough to return to the ministry, but only part-time.

These things must have weighed heavily on his mind as he jotted down the words to “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”.

The peaceful song of the angels is contrasted with “the weary world“, and the ultimate victory of the Prince of Peace is in view.

The hymn is an encouragement to anyone who struggles, as Sears did, to remember the message of peace and goodwill God brought to a war-torn world on the night of Jesus’ birth.

One hundred and seventy years after the carol was written, the invitation to “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing” is as timely as ever.

“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, good will 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 blessed 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 seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold
when the new heaven and earth shall own
the Prince of Peace, their King,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.”

Interestingly, there are two tunes for this carol.

One was composed by Richard Storrs Willis and is commonly sung in America.

The English version uses a tune adapted by Arthur Sullivan.

2. Angels from the Realms of Glory

James Montgomery had a hard life.

The child of Scottish-Irish missionaries to the West Indies, he attended school in Ireland and then in England, and was very lonely and homesick both times.

Worst of all, his parents died when he was twelve years old, leaving him an impoverished orphan in a foreign land.

Expelled from school after getting poor grades, he was given a job as a grocer which he eventually lost, leaving him no choice but to roam the streets.

Despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), James was a poet at heart. In fact, selling his poetry helped keep him alive during his teen years.

Eventually he was able to get a job in a newspaper office in Sheffield, and he found himself in charge of the paper after the owner was forced to flee the country due to his radical political views.

James was an outspoken activist also, and he was arrested for it more than once. Over time, however, he became respected by the community and his paper sold enough copies to make him very wealthy.

Ever the wordsmith, he often published his poems in the paper.

On Christmas Eve in 1816, he was reading from Luke chapter 2.

He was particularly moved by verses thirteen and fourteen: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ “

Drawing inspiration from those words, he wrote down the words to “Angels from the Realms of Glory” and published it in the Christmas Eve edition of the paper.

“Angels from the realms of glory,
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

“Shepherds, in the field abiding,
watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing,
yonder shines the Infant light.
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

“Sages, leave your contemplations,
brighter visions beam afar
seek the great Desire of nations,
ye have seen His natal star.
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

“Saints before the altar bending,
watching long in hope and fear,
suddenly the Lord, descending,
in His temple shall appear.
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

“Sinners, rung with true repentance,
doomed for guilt to endless pains,
justice now revokes the sentence,
mercy calls you, breaks your chains.
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

“Though an Infant now we view Him,
He shall share His Father’s throne,
gather all the nations to Him,
every knee shall then bow down.
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

“All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son,
evermore your voice raising,
to th’Eternal Three in One.
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.”

It’s easy to see how James could have been inspired by the thought of the Christ being worshipped by both poor shepherds and wealthy wise men – he could identify with both groups at different times of his life.

In the poem every man, rich and poor, with “all Creation“, is called to praise the “newborn King.

The poem was later set to music by blind organist Henry Smart.

The carol was sung for the first time at a Christmas service in 1821, five years after it first appeared in the Sheffield paper.

3. O Little Town of Bethlehem

It was Christmas Eve, 1865, and Phillips Brooks was on the journey of a lifetime.

He had traveled to Israel from his native Boston, and on this very special night he decided to take a horseback ride from Jerusalem to the little town of Bethlehem.

On his way, he passed by the field that is thought to be the site of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds.

Once he arrived in Bethlehem, he took part in the Christmas Eve service near the traditional site of the Nativity.

Years later, this night in Bethlehem inspired Brooks to write a Christmas carol for the children of the church where he served as rector.

Lewis Redner, the church organist, set it to music or him.

Since that day, both children and adults have been moved by the musical depiction of the “wondrous gift” that was given to little Bethlehem on that first Christmas night.

“O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by:
yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

“For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.

“How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heav’n.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him still,
the dear Christ enters in.

“O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!”

English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams later set the carol lyrics to a familiar English tune. That version is most commonly sung in Britain today, while Redner’s version is more popular in America.

What are your favorite Christmas carols? Leave a comment below!

One comment

  1. Mary Lenger

    I enjoyed the thoughts you wrote down Heidi, with Beautiful soothing music about our Lord. My two favorite songs are “Oh Holy Night”, and watching you sing in the “Messiah”.

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