Christmas Carols: O Little Town of Bethlehem
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me One who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Phillip Brooks (1835-1893) was a preacher of excellence within the Episcopal Church. He held a Doctorate of Divinity from Oxford and taught at Yale University. During the American Civil War, he took a firm public stand against slavery.
In 1865, Brooks traveled to the Holy Lands, and on December 24th he made his way on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. At the Church of the Nativity, Constantine’s ancient basilica built in 326 A.D. over the traditional cave site of the first Nativity, he attended and participated in a five-hour Christmas musical praise celebration. The sequence of events conducted a short distance from the hillside where the shepherds heard the very first Christmas song at the birth of Christ provided the backdrop for the hymn he wrote three years later.
“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”
At Christmastime in 1868, Brooks recalled that magical night in Bethlehem and wrote a song for the children’s choir of Holy Trinity Church, his Philadelphia parish. His organist put the melody to his words and on Christmas Eve O Little Town of Bethlehem was sung for the very first time. The hymn was printed on an informal leaflet and in 1871 appeared in The Sunday School Hymnal.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
Sharon, I loved this! Thank you for sharing. 😀 And, Merry Christmas to you and Steve.
My husband’s family lived in Bethlehem here in Pennsylvania for their entire life. We now live in a little town on the border of Bethlehem. It is, of course, Christmas City and has a large lighted star on the mountain south of the city. There are horse drawn carriage rides and a Moravian Putz with hand carved figurines which are several hundreds of years old. The Moravian Church has “shows” when a narrator tells the Christmas story and a light is centered on the figurines which are appropriate to that part of the story. It is very moving. I took my children and the Girl Scout troops and my kindergarten class when I taught. So this song always makes me think of our local “little town of Bethlehem”. Thank you for sharing.