Richard Beck refers to the two carols, It came upon the midnight clear and O Holy Night as “resistance literature”. The subversive words tend to get buried under the sentimentality that is so often Christmas, but they spell out the redemptive good news of the Christmas gospel. Both were written in the late 1840’s. It came upon the midnight clear is based on a poem written by Edmund Sears in 1849. O Holy Night was composed by Adolphe Adam two years earlier than that. This was at a time of great turbulence. The American Civil War was not far away, and slaves were on their way to emancipation. (The Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863). It is easy to get carried away by a good tune and miss the political and redemptive meaning of both these lovely carols, and the Christmas story.
So we sing from It came upon the midnight clear:
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.
In O Holy Night we sing:
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 bother;
and in his name shall all oppression shall cease.
Richard Beck points out that the theme of emancipation is even stronger in the original French poem, where those four lines are rendered:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron has chained.
The theme of redemption is the essential Good News of Christmas. Hope and longing constitute the spirit of Christmas which promises a world turned upside down: where freedom is proclaimed to prisoners, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free. It is such a subversive message that gets shrouded in sentimentality. We get carried away by a good tune. Do we know that they are redemption songs?