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 tonight

For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth.

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.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

O Little Town Of Bethlehem is another carol with its origins in the USA. It was written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks and had been inspired by a visit he took to the Holy Land in 1865 after the end of the civil war and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. During this time he travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to attend the traditional service at the ancient basilica, allegedly built on site of the nativity. He noticed as they approached the town in the late afternoon before it was dark, there were still shepherds in the fields preparing to keep watch over their flocks at night, as they had been all those years before.

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was born and raised in Boston and graduated from Harvard University in 1855. He had ambitions of being a teacher and was disappointed to discover that he wasn’t very good at it, being sacked from his first post. Subsequently he decided to train for the ministry where sermonising would satisfy his ambition to guide and instruct others. In 1856 he started his training in Virginia at an Episcopalian seminary (the USA branch of the Anglican faith which had split from the Church of England after American independence) and on completing his studies in 1859 he was appointed to a church in Philadelphia. He gathered national fame as a preacher, and published several books of sermons that became best sellers. In 1869 he returned to Boston to take up a post, and in 1891 was elected as Bishop of Massachusetts.

One point of interest is that he baptised Helen Keller (1880-1968), the deaf blind activist and radical campaigner, and one of Helen’s brothers was called Phillip Brooks Keller.

Rather like Robert Montgomery’s publication of Angels From The Realms of Glory, Brooks didn’t expect much to come from O Little Town of Bethlehem. It was written for a children’s carol concert in 1868 and he relied on his part-time organist to come up with a tune, which was accomplished at the last minute. Later, a bookshop owner in Philadelphia printed the words and music in a pamphlet, and then a rector in Worcester, Massachusetts included it in a hymn book for children.

Its popularity in the UK probably derives from its musical heritage. The original tune by the amateur organist was given the name St Louis by the rector in Massachusetts (for no obvious reason) and this melody remains popular in the USA; in the UK, however, a later tune is more commonly associated with the carol. Forest Green was written in 1903 by Ralph Vaughan Williams who adapted it from an English folk ballad called The Ploughboy’s Dream. At that time traditional folk tunes were being collected and orchestrated by several British composers and this particular tune was collected by Vaughan Williams in the village of Forest Green in Surrey from a farm worker in his 70s. Several of these newly discovered tunes were included in English Hymnal published in 1906. There are other tunes to which the words O Little Town of Bethlehem are sometimes set too, and one is most frequently used by choirs: this variation can often be heard in the annual service of nine lessons and carols from Kings College, Cambridge. Another more contemporary version is called Little Town and was recorded by Cliff Richard in 1982.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light, / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight. A message for these times, indeed, whether you’re thinking of Bethlehem today on the front line of the Palestinian West Bank territory, or closer to home.

Merry Christmas