Upon the Midnight Clear


He hath said, which heard the words of God … : there shall come a Star out of Jacob (Num. 24:16–17).
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels, bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold …

I knew the song well. At twelve years old, I knew all the familiar Christmas carols. But I wasn’t impressed. I preferred our own Navaho chants, although of course they meant entirely different things.

While I was willing to put up with all the nonsense about Christmas—the carols, the gifts, the parties, even the Christmas tree I was now looking for—I couldn’t see any angels. I couldn’t hear any “glorious song,” nor any “harps of gold.” What I was hearing was the monotonous clip-clop of my horses’ hooves on the mountain trail. And what I was seeing were ominous clouds looming in the east, the direction in which I was headed.

It was my mom’s doing, of course. “Billy, your sisters want a Christmas tree,” she’d said. “We can’t afford to buy one in town this year, so I want you to go up in the hills on our land and find a nice pine and bring it home.” When I’d let a disgusted look spread over my face, she’d pleaded, “Please, Red Eagle.”

White Feather, my mom, didn’t call me by my Indian name often, so I knew that she was serious.

Now here I was, riding my pony, Jubilee, and leading Old Buck, our packhorse, who would carry the tree home. But my heart wasn’t in it. Why did my silly sisters have to have a Christmas tree?

We were out of school for the holidays, and that part of Christmas I liked. On the other hand, it would take a full day out of my vacation to ride to where I could cut a tree, then return home with it. I could have gotten in a lot of basketball practice in that time. So it wasn’t any glorious song I was hearing.

I’d started out early this morning, and by noon I’d reached the edge of the timber where I hoped to find a just-right tree for the family celebration. Only I didn’t intend to participate. I couldn’t see anything to get excited about. I did, however, remember the third verse * of the carol that kept running through my mind.

O 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!

I could relate to that “crushing load” bit, all right. Lately that’s all my life seemed to hold—study, work, work, study. And the “climbing way with painful steps” figured in, too—I could feel Jubilee’s muscles strain as we scrambled higher up the timbered mountainside.

But I couldn’t sense any “glad” or “golden hours,” not out here in the middle of nowhere. And I couldn’t very well “rest beside the weary road” until I’d at least cut a tree, loaded it on Buck, and begun the lonesome journey home. I sure didn’t hear angels singing yet, either.

I did want to get a proper tree, so I tethered the horses and sat down to eat the lunch Mom had packed for me. That way, I could look around and spot the best-shaped Christmas tree—not too large, not too small, just one that looked like it was meant for our family.

I guess I was tireder than I thought, for I dozed off. Maybe it was “angel voices” that brought me sharply awake. Or maybe it was only Jubilee and Buck, shuffling to turn their backs to the cold wind that suddenly whistled through the pines. It was getting dark, even though it was only midday. I shuddered. Then the carol’s second verse popped into my head.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world. …

Angles again! If they were there, they certainly weren’t making their presence known now. Not, that is, unless they’d turned into the massive, wet snowflakes that were floating over my own “weary world.” I’d have to cut my tree and head toward home fast.

I’d already picked out one I liked, but since the air was churning with soft, white, wet feathers, I had to stop and figure exactly where I’d seen it. I led the horses to the spot, sawed the tree off at its base, and tied it onto Buck’s packsaddle. By then, there was no way to find the trail we’d followed up the mountainside. There was only that vast white wall of nothingness closing in on us. It was cold, too—a chill that penetrated right through my sheepskin jacket.

I remembered seeing a fallen evergreen not far from the Christmas tree I’d chosen. Its horizontal trunk would offer more protection than the upright pines around me, so I led the horses to it and again tethered them where they could stand with their backs to the wind. Then I hunkered down beside the lifeless log to wait out the storm.

How long it took, I’m not sure. But even though it was cold and the wet gathered in great blotches on the horses’ backs, on my sheltering tree trunk, and even on me, I knew that we would survive. By the time it stopped snowing, my watch showed 4:15, and it was now getting naturally dark.

“We’d better start home,” I told the horses, and I began to lead them to where I thought I’d find the trail down the mountainside. I’d ride later. I didn’t want to chance Jubilee slipping and falling on me.

Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

As we started down the beautiful snow-covered mountainside, I was filled with peace. I could almost imagine the angels watching over us, could almost hear them singing. At home, Mom would be worried, but I’d been trained to take care of myself, so I knew that she wouldn’t panic when I failed to show up on time.

It wasn’t long till a sliver of dim light began to peep over the rim of the tree-lined mountain behind me, and I realized that the moon, almost full, was coming up. It would light my way home, glistening on the snow as we plodded along. And now, instead of the humdrum clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the trial, the rhythm of their subdued tracking through the snow did, indeed, somehow remind me of angels singing.

“Peace on earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all gracious King.
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

My sisters would have their Christmas tree. Maybe Christmas had a place in the world, after all. If the world could lie “in solemn stillness … to hear the angels sing,” then I would help them with their song. Jubilee and Buck never even flicked an ear when I started singing: “It came upon the midnight clear, …”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Show References

  1.   *

    In an early version of this song; it is not included in Hymns 1985.