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O Little Town of Bethlehem

posted Dec 19, 2015, 10:00 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Dec 19, 2015, 10:01 AM ]
This year marks the 150
th anniversary of the inspiration for this carol!

Its lyricist, Phillip Brooks, was the Episcopalian rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, PA. Greatly opposed to slavery, he guided his congregation through the agonies of the Civil War only to be totally distraught over the senseless death of Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865. To rediscover and strengthen his faith, he spent the rest of the year travelling in Europe and the Middle East, including a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During Christmas week he wrote in his letter home from Bethlehem: “It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine… 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 (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been…”

Three years later, he wrote a poem to share his inspiration of seeing Bethlehem under the stars. His parish organist, Lewis Redner, composed the music. At first he struggled to come up with a tune, but said years later “I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it... Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

The rector of All Saints' Church in Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn book, and it was he who christened the hymn tune
SAINT LOUIS in honor of its composer.

Popular recordings have been made by Mariah Carey; The Carpenters; Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand. Tracy Silverman plays it on the electric violin on Windham Hill’s The Carols of Christmas. Or for something different, check out Montgomery Bruce’s saxophone version on Bossa Noel: A Chilled Out Christmas.