Appalachia Christmas Music

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

EdmundSears It came upon a midnight clear

In 1849 Pastor Dr. Edmond Sears wrote a Christmas message for his congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts. The message included the words to the Christmas carol It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.

Sears was saddened by the poverty he encountered in his community and by the division the country as a whole faced over slavery. He struggled with writing the special Christmas message, but was inspired by the second book of Luke in the Bible. While Sears pondered the miraculous story of shepherds being visited by an Angel with the glory of the Lord shining upon them, he wrote a short poem and titled it It Came upon the Midnight Clear. Sears combined the words from an old poem he had written with his new poem and the Christmas carol we sing today was born.

Sears was also an editor for a newspaper and magazine. Working in the print business allowed Sears to publish his poem, ensuring more people than those who attended his church would be exposed to his writing.

File:Richard Storrs Willis.jpg

Richard Storrs Willis was a choral composer. Willis came across the poem written by Sears and realized a tune he had written fit it perfectly. In 1850 Willis published the song, naming it Study Number 23. Ten years later Willis republished the song with a new arrangement and called it While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. The second version is the song we are familiar with today.

It took 2 men-Sears and Willis-to produce a song that fit neatly into most hymn books, however it took thousands of men to make the song a true Christmas carol that is woven tightly into the Christmas culture of America.


American soldiers sung It Came Upon The Midnight Clear while they were stationed in France during the war. One can imagine how the words of the song struck a chord with soldiers fighting for their very lives. The song became such an important anthem to the soldiers, that the ones who made it back home made sure the song was part of their Christmas tradition for years to come.

The follow lines seems to take on greater meaning for me when I think of soldiers fighting in a strange and distant land:

Peace on earth, good will to men From heavens all gracious King, The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing

O’er all the weary world: Above its sad and lowly plains They bend on hovering wing, And ever o’er its Bable sounds The blessed 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

Truthfully, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear hasn’t ever been one of my favorite Christmas songs. But after researching the history of the song-it’s moved farther up the list. I love thinking about Sears writing the poem in a fit of sad inspiration; Willis discovering he’d already composed music that fit the words perfectly; and most of all those WWI soldiers who sung the song as a way of making them feel closer to home.


Sources: *Wikipedia-photo, *Public Domain-photo; *Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. Print.

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  • Reply
    November 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    I always enjoy your blog but especially guessing what the Appalachian words mean and when you give us the background on songs. Paul and Pap do an extra good job on this song. My aunts and uncles played and sang all the time when we would all get together when I was a kid. They’re all gone now and I really miss being surrounded my music like that. Thanks so much for sharing your family and their music.

  • Reply
    Shawn J
    November 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    I would love to win one of the cd’s to give to my dad, thanks for the giveaway. Love your blog!!!
    smjohns63 at yahoo dot com

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    November 12, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    I love Christmas music, especially the carols. It makes me sad that we don’t hear it played in the stores during Christmas like we used too when I was growing up. Of course I listen to it on my CD player, but I remember how it used to be when it was played everywhere.

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    November 11, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Excellent rendition as always, made sweeter by the history. This has always been one of my favorites.

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    November 10, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    tipper as always i enjoy your stories and information… christmas songs are beautiful to me… celebrating OUR SAVIOR.. and always reminds me of angels singing.
    as for pap and pauls music.. ahhh what can i say.. i love it and the harmony gets me every time 🙂
    i hope as this busy season starts that you and yours are safe and healthy.. sending big ladybug hugs

  • Reply
    Kerry in GA
    November 10, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Beautiful job. Thank you for the interesting history.

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    Enjoyed reading the story ofthe song and as alwys loved the singing.

  • Reply
    Linda Johnson
    November 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I so enjoy your research and the wonderful way you write it up. makes this Christmas song come to life!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    November 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    In my old, old age…sometimes I have to make up memonic devices to remember things….
    Please do not think bad of me folks!
    Here it is…”It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”…Christmas is coming all is quite (even the soldiers will have some peace) for a short while, (replace soldiers as they) “While Shepards Watch Their Flocks By Night. My way to remember the titles of the song!
    I “Willis” have to go the the “Storrs”, especially “Sears” before I make my appointment with “Dr. Edmond”!
    Now then I will remember who wrote and had the melody of the song…”It Came Upon The Midnight Clear”, by Sears and Willis…and also some tidbits about the sdng.
    Does anyone else make up memonic devices to remember things, except little “old” me! LOL
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I put a note on your Grannyism’s asking If she a old recipe for rock or hard candy! Maybe one passed down. Dad said his Mother used to make rock candy for them and it was a real treat!

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    As usual, love the BP music. Thanks for sharing! Learning the history of this Christmas song does make it more special.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    November 10, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I think the use of “Bable” in the carol refers to the Tower of Bable in the Bible when God gave different people their own separate languages. They had to abandon their efforts to build a tower to heaven because they couldn’t understand each other. The phrase in the song is saying that the message of the angels can be understood by anyone no matter their place of birth or the tongue they speak. That same message of hope can still be heard today by every person the world over if they would stop and listen.
    The heralding of the birth of the Christ transcends human languages and promises salvation to anyone who will accept that He is the only Tower that reaches heaven.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    November 10, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    You make these songs of Christmas
    even more enjoyable by telling the
    history of them. It Came Upon the
    Midnight Clear is on the CD I have
    of Paul and Pap. I Love it! …Ken

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    My grandfather was in WW1 in France. I don’t recall him ever talking about his time there. My Father was in WW2 and talked very little about it. Dad died in 1971 and I just learned this year of his medals as we went through things after mom’s death last year. It must have been a hard time for both of them and something they wanted to put away.

  • Reply
    Lola Howard
    November 10, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    It never was one of my favorite songs either ,”UNTIL” I JUST LISTENED TO Pap and Paul SING IT ,OH THERE IS NO WORDS TO EXPLAIN HOW BEAUTIFUL IT SOUNDED.
    Do they have a dvd of this ?

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Hi Tipper,Thank you Tipper for the information and Pap and Paul for the singing!And yes ,for the Blessing,great way to start the day.God Bless.Aloha,Jean

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    November 10, 2013 at 11:02 am

    I have long loved this carol. As a child, it was always included when our gang went door to door singing Christmas carols in our neighborhood. It’s nice to know the history. Beautiful rendition by the guys!

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    November 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

    They did a fine job on the song. Christmas will be upon us before we know it!

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    November 10, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Beautiful! Makes me think of church at Christmas time when I was growing up. Interesting history.

  • Reply
    Annette Hensley
    November 10, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Tipper, I always love it when you give us info on the history of a song. It makes it so much more meaningful. Thanks! It Came Upon the Midnight Clear has now moved up on my list of favorites.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    November 10, 2013 at 9:15 am

    I’m guilty! Guilty of envy every time I hear Pap & Paul – how wonderful it must be to surrounded by music. Thank you for sharing your family’s incredible talents with us. Good story and I especially like the military tie-in.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    November 10, 2013 at 9:07 am

    I enjoy the history of the songs you research and as usual the “Wilson Duo” does a great job.

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 8:57 am

    When I hear the song from now on, I will always think of the soldiers who were away from their families at Christmas. Thanks for sharing the information. As always, The Blind Pig Gang would make Sears and Willis proud.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    November 10, 2013 at 8:57 am

    I could imagine the verse that says and includes…”And ever o’er
    its Bable sounds The blessed angels sing!” Thinking after hearing the noise (Bable) of guns, planes, bombs, grenades, the peace and quite would certainly feel like angels singing…
    Sometimes we hear so much noise, always going on in our head, I wake up at night just to listen to the quite.
    At midnight on Christmas Eve is my very favorite time of the year. Just walk out the door just before midnight on Christmas eve and listen…To me that is the most peaceful sound in the world.
    I don’t remember ever hearing a Bable in the air on that time of year!
    Thanks Tipper,
    Loved this post.
    PS…I still have a few sugar plums dancing in my head…Snowmen, angels etc. I was disappointed that no product demonstraters were at the EXPO…but there was a little old lady and her daugheter that had a zillion flavors of rock candy, so oldtimey and great for Christmas..I couldn’t make up my mind so I got a mixed bag…!! LOL

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I never knew the history behind this piece of music. Interestingly, my uncle who had been stationed in France used to sing it when we gathered for Christmas. Now I can put together why; many servicemen really didn’t speak about what happened in France. He’s with the Lord right now, but his stories went with him. I love when you all get together for your readers. What a great family!

  • Reply
    Bob and Inez Jones
    November 10, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for t he history on that song. I have always liked the song and looked forward to hearing it at Christmas. It has new meaning now for me. I had heard of the soldiers singing across the trenches. It is wonderful that music is like a common thread running through all people no matter what or where the circumstances. We appreciate your music so much,Bob and Inez

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 8:08 am

    So many fought that we might be able to hear and sing these beautiful Christmas songs. Thanks so much to all our veterans.

  • Reply
    Donna Godfrey
    November 10, 2013 at 7:58 am

    I love this story and I listened to the song…..this will be one that will be in my heart this season….I often think of the song as I look at the Nativity I always put up.

  • Reply
    November 10, 2013 at 7:43 am

    Paul and Pap did another great job with that song! You know, of all the inspiring, beautiful and comforting writings in the Bible, my all time favorite is the one you mentioned, St. Luke 2:8-14. As for Christmas songs, they all are special.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    November 10, 2013 at 7:31 am

    Thanks very much for a meaningful intro to a beautiful Christmas Carol.
    Makes one realize just how fortunate we are today!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    November 10, 2013 at 7:30 am

    I had the privilege in 1978 of spending a month in the Holy Land. As Grover, his sister Estelle and I stood in Shepherds’ Fields above Bethlehem, with Mr. Tabish, a Bethlehemite with whom Stelle had made friends, and he told us, “This is where we believe the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth” I could hear the strains in my mind of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” on that hot July day outside Bethlehem! It is so meaningful to see the land where God became flesh and dwelt among us!

  • Reply
    Carol Isler
    November 10, 2013 at 7:16 am

    When I was a little kid, my great uncle told me about soldiers singing Christmas Carols in the trenches. He also told me I was a song of joy that lightened his heart just like those songs did.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 10, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Yes, Tipper, the history makes it sweeter, and as always You, Pap, and Paul make fine music.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 10, 2013 at 7:08 am

    It is one of my most favorite songs

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