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O Little Town of Bethlehem How Still We See Thee Lie

Cheryl is a poet, freelance writer, author, and former newspaper columnist. She has degrees in Psychology and Biblical studies

Bethlehem as depcited in the day of Christ's birth.

Bethlehem as depcited in the day of Christ's birth.

The gospel in song

One of the things I love about the older hymns and Christmas carols is that they are based on scripture and tell the gospel in song. Now that the holiday season begins earlier each year, some of these songs are being played in retail stores. I grew up attending a Baptist church where we sang all 4 stanzas of every hymn in the Baptist Hymnal. I am thankful that as I age my long-term memory is intact and I take comfort in singing along. One of my favorite Christmas selections is O Little Town of Bethlehem. The melody is peaceful and soothing and brings to mind what it may have been like the night that Christ was born. The first verse is as follows.

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

On that one glorious night, salvation came quietly into the world in the form of a Babe in a manger. Poor shepherds were the first to hear the news from angels and follow the star. I think of that Holy, Divine night as I hear songs such as O Little Town of Bethlehem playing in various locations during the holiday season. I get goose bumps just thinking about it all.

The lyrics were written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893). He was an Episcopal priest and rector of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and later at Trinity church in Boston. Brooks received his inspiration when he visited the town of Bethlehem in Jerusalem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote a poem based on his experience for his church. Lewis Redner,(1831-1908) the church organist wrote the music.

A song is born

The second verse:

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

Lewis Redner said the song was written for the Sunday School Christmas program in 1868 and neither he nor Mr. Brooks believed the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas play. It was Richard McCauley who got permission to print the song on leaflets that were for sale in his bookstore. A Reverend Huntington, who was rector of All Saints Church in Worcester Massachusetts sought permission to print the lyrics in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, which was called The Church Porch. It was Huntington and it was he who christened the tune of the music as 'Saint Louis.'

Modern-day Bethlehem at Christmas

Modern-day Bethlehem at Christmas

A different tune

Verse 3

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

In the United Kingdom, O Little Town of Bethlehem is sung to the tune of an English hymn called O Forrest Green. Both versions can be heard in the above video. In all my years of singing this carol, I had not heard the Forest Green version until now.

Verse 4

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

I have such beautiful memories of practicing for Sunday school Christmas programs and singing O Little Town of Bethlehem. I can recall the manger scenes with a doll for baby Jesus in the manger. I think of all the hundreds of people from my childhood church who have passed on and perhaps, I don't know for certain they are now singing praises to Him in a heavenly choir. They are in the presence of our Lord Emanuel who is soon to return and gather His own. Until then men and women still have the choice to allow Him to cast out their sin and enter in, giving them the new birth.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Cheryl E Preston


Cheryl E Preston (author) from Roanoke on November 20, 2020:

Thank you for reading Ms Dora.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 20, 2020:

Thanks for the facts on "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Have not yet listened to the alternative tune, but I will. That should be interesting!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 19, 2020:

Thanks for telling us the background information about who wrote these iconic Christmas songs.