‘O Little town of Bethlehem’ first heard in 1868

The 12 Carols of Christmas

By Tim Colliver - [email protected]

Editor’s Note: It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “sound track.” While everyone is familiar with “The 12 Days of Christmas,” The Times-Gazette is presenting a special 12-part series entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” daily through Christmas Eve, relating the stories behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.

In her 1941 book “Stories of Hymns We Love,” author Cecilia Rudin said that congregational singing as it is enjoyed in churches today was unheard of over 400 years ago.

She wrote that all of the music up to that time was produced by priests and specially selected choirs, and since all of it was in Latin, people simply didn’t understand it.

That all changed after the birth of a child who was divinely talented in music and would become an excellent singer, in addition to leading the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther contributed four hymns to the eight-title Protestant Hymnal of 1524, the first hymnal produced for the new church and one that, in his words, “flew all over Europe.”

Nearly three-and-a-half centuries later, minister Phillips Brooks spent a year abroad in 1865-66, and his travels took him to the Holy Land in December 1865, where he enjoyed seeing the locations associated with the life of Jesus.

According to Rudin, on Christmas Eve 1865, he and some friends visited the little town of Bethlehem and upon arriving, wrote that they could look down across the shallow valley and see the town lying “still in the darkness” much as it did on that first Christmas Eve more than 1,900 years before.

“As we passed,” he said, “the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks, just as they had on that night so long ago when the angels came to tell them of Jesus’ birth.”

She wrote that those images remained with Brooks long after he returned home and three years later in 1868, he began to commit to paper the words that described the beauty of his night in Bethlehem.

When he was finished, he took it to his church organist and Sunday school superintendent Lewis Redner, and asked him to compose a tune for his “simple little carol” for the children in his Sunday school.

Redner mused about a melody for over a week, and went to bed on Christmas Eve still without music to go with Brooks’ poem.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he was said to have been awakened by what he described as an “angel strain” ringing in his ears.

He got up and quickly wrote it down, and in the morning filled in the harmony.

The music had come to him just in time for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to be sung by the Sunday school children on that Christmas morning in 1868.

Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.

The 12 Carols of Christmas

By Tim Colliver

[email protected]