We have reached that time of year when Christmas music, be it sacred or secular, assaults our senses. The canon of secular songs forces its way into our consciousness from early November onwards whether we like it or not, and even though many of those songs are on our guilty pleasures list, it is difficult to avoid tiring of them before Advent has started, let alone Christmas. I try in vain to avoid them until well into December, yet have to admit to a frisson of childlike excitement when I hear Fairytale of New York or I Wish it could be Christmas every Day, to name but two, for the first time each year. And when Perry Como sings It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas I have to agree with him.
Fortunately, sacred Christmas music is a little easier to avoid, in that it is less commonly heard in supermarkets and garden centres, but one is nevertheless likely to have sung O Come All Ye Faithful several times before we get anywhere near the “Happy Morning” on which we can sing “Yea, Lord We Greet Thee”. These days, the John Rutter standards are also likely to have become over-familiar by mid-December if you are involved in a church, school or choir, and I must even admit to a certain weariness with the standards such as Hark the Herald, While Shepherds Watched, Silent Night and even Away in a Manger.
Yet there are a number of wonderful Christmas Carols which are neglected, and would be unlikely to feature in the answer of any non-churchgoer asked to name their Top Five Christmas Carols. I would cite as examples See Amid the Winter’s Snow, Christians Awake (which can really only be sung on Christmas Day, and so in my memories of childhood carries a unique feel of excited Christmas Morning services) and above all, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.
If you know a lot about me, you’ll now see where this post is heading: It Came upon the Midnight Clear is indeed a Unitarian carol, the only one to have reached the mainstream, written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876), an American Unitarian Preacher and first heard in 1849. It is, and always has been, my favourite Christmas hymn. And yet it is not exactly cheerful or festive, and some would say not even Christian. All the better for it, in my opinion. I am never sure how well known it is in our secular age, but I think any churchgoer will know it. For those who don’t, here it is, performed by the peerless Choir of King's College Cambridge in 2006:-
The first verse seems to be heading in a relatively orthodox direction, evoking traditional images of a still and silent night interrupted by the song of the Angels:
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.
Yet Sears was writing at a time when he was preoccupied by events in a turbulent world, and with threatened revolutionary rumblings in Europe and the United States' war with Mexico on his mind, he portrayed the world in a later verse as dark, full of "sin and strife," and not hearing the Christmas message:
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.
So here we have the Christmas message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men well and truly deflated. At this point, we are in the same territory as Greg Lake’s much-loved anti-Christmas song, I Believe in Father Christmas, which brilliantly debunks the peace and goodwill message. It Came upon the Midnight Clear could indeed be construed at this point as an anti-Christmas hymn. It has in the past been criticized for not even mentioning the Christ-child. British scholar Erik Routley wrote that "the hymn is little more than an ethical song, extolling the worth and splendour of peace among men."
So not very Christian then? Well perhaps not. Yet it is most ironic to learn that Edmund Sears, author of this "humanist" carol, was in fact a very much a Unitarian Christian. "The word God may be uttered without emotion," he told his congregation, "while the word Jesus opens the heart, and touches the place of tears." For Sears, Christ was the incarnation of the Divine Word, and a mediator who alone could bridge "the awful gulf between God and man." In other words, he saw Jesus Christ as the metaphorical, rather than literal, son of God. Pretty orthodox Unitarian Christianity: God reaching down to humanity, through his metaphorical son as a prophet, but his "peace" contingent upon a human response rather than by divine intervention.
Although as a Unitarian, Sears rejected the doctrine of original sin which is so central to mainstream Christianity, he saw all human groups and individuals as having the potential for evil. At the same time he wrote of people as fashioned in the image of God and blessed with varying degrees of development in their spiritual nature. So there is always the prospect of redemption, of good overcoming evil, leaving room for optimism and an uplifting conclusion to his hymn about Christmas which has become his only legacy of significance.
So for me, the most appealing aspect of this carol (other than Arthur Sullivan’s beautiful melody) is the optimism of the last verse, which never fails to lift my spirits in the face of so much that’s wrong in the world:
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 splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Naïve optimism? Arguably so at the end of 2016, a year in which we have so often been reminded of mankind’s capacity for stupidity at best, downright evil at worst. Yet if we can’t have hope at Christmas, seeing the coming of the Christ-Child as a symbol of light and warmth at the darkest and coldest time of the year, then truly we have given up on life.