It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

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Rembrandt The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1634

"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" (1849) — sometimes rendered as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" — is a poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. Sears' lyrics are most commonly set to one of two melodies: "Carol," composed by Richard Storrs Willis, or "Noel," adapted from an English melody.


Edmund Sears composed the five-stanza poem in Common Metre Doubled during 1849. It first appeared on December 29, 1849, in the Christian Register in Boston.[1]

Sears served the Unitarian congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts before moving on to a larger congregation in Lancaster. After seven years of hard work, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland. He wrote It Came Upon the Midnight Clear while serving as a part-time preacher in Wayland.[2] Writing during a period of personal melancholy, and with news of revolution in Europe and the United States' war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of "sin and strife," and not hearing the Christmas message.[3]

Sears is said to have written these words at the request of his friend, William Parsons Lunt, pastor of United First Parish Church, Quincy, Massachusetts for Pastor Lunt's Sunday School.[1] One account says the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in Sears' home on Christmas Eve, but it is unknown to what tune as Willis' familiar melody was not written until the following year.[2]

According to Ken Sawyer, Sears' song is remarkable for its focus not on Bethlehem, but on his own time, and on the contemporary issue of war and peace. Written in 1849, it has long been assumed to be Sears' response to the just ended Mexican-American War.[2]


In 1850, Richard Storrs Willis, a composer who trained under Felix Mendelssohn, wrote the melody called "Carol." This melody is most often set in the key of B-flat major in a six-eight time signature. "Carol" is the most widely known tune to the song in the United States.[1][4][5][6]

In the United Kingdom the tune called "Noel", which was adapted from an English melody in 1874 by Arthur Sullivan, is the usual accompaniment. This tune also appears as an alternate in The Hymnal 1982, the hymnal of the United States Episcopal Church.[7]

Sheet music can be found at IMSLP.ORG for various melodies.


The full song comprises five stanzas. Some versions, including the United Methodist Hymnal[4] and Lutheran Book of Worship,[5] omit verse three, while others (including The Hymnal 1982) omit verse four.[8] Several variations also exist to Sears' original lyrics.


Instrumental of the tune "Carol" - Piano, Violin, and English Horn; variation in first phrase present (see above)

Problems playing this file? See media help.

This song has been included in many of the Christmas albums recorded by numerous singers in the modern era. Johnny Mathis recorded this song on his first Christmas album Merry Christmas, (1958). In 1962 Bing Crosby had a medley of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and this song included on his Christmas album I Wish You a Merry Christmas. In 1965 Sergio Franchi covered this song in his Billboard Top 40 album The Heart of Christmas (Cuor' Di Natale).[9] The song is featured on The Ray Price Christmas Album (1969). It is used as a short intro the Carpenters' 1974 album An Old-Fashioned Christmas. Eric Burdon & The Animals recorded the song to the tune of their hit single The House Of The Rising Sun. In 2006, a recording of the song by Daryl Hall & John Oates hit number one on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart.[10] Kutless also recorded it for WOW Christmas: Green (2005), Highway 101 from the album A Christmas Tradition (1987), as did Josh Groban in Noël (2007) and Anne Murray from the album What a Wonderful Christmas (2001). Royce Campbell recorded the song on his CD, A Solo Guitar Christmas (2007).

In 1981, Swedish singer Stefan Borsch recorded the song in Swedish, as "Jag ser en stjärna på himmelen" ("I see a star in the sky") on the album "I kväll jag tänder ett ljus".[11]


  1. ^ a b c "It Came upon the Midnight Clear", Cyberhymnal
  2. ^ a b c Sawyer, Ken. "It came upon a Unitarian midnight clear", UUWorld, November 1, 2002
  3. ^ Hughes, Peter. "Edmund Hamilton Sears", Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, April 24, 2002
  4. ^ a b c d e The United Methodist Hymnal, © 1989
  5. ^ a b c d e Lutheran Book of Worship, © 1978
  6. ^ The official Unitarian-Universalist hymnal, "Singing the Living Tradition", © 1993
  7. ^ Raymond F. Glover, ed. (1985). The Hymnal 1982. New York City: The Church Hymnal Corporation. pp. Hymn #90. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Raymond F. Glover, ed. (1985). The Hymnal 1982. New York City: The Church Hymnal Corporation. pp. Hymn #89. 
  9. ^ Sergio Franchi
  10. ^ "Fred Bronson, Chart Beat, December 21, 2006",
  11. ^ Information på Svensk mediedatabas
Preceded by
"Jingle Bells" by Kimberly Locke
Billboard Adult Contemporary number-one single by
December 30, 2006 - January 6, 2007
Succeeded by
"What Hurts the Most" by Rascal Flatts