JP O’Connor tells the story behind one of the best-loved carols of all time


O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the
Are met in thee to-night.


Thus begins one of our best-loved Christmas hymns. And the author of the hymn, Revd Phillips Brooks. ‘lived’ that line on a visit to The Holy Land three years earlier, for it must surely have been the sight of Bethlehem itself that inspired him to write this hymn.

Brooks, later bishop of Boston diocese, was then rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity and Chapel, Philadelphia, and had spent a year travelling in Europe and the East. Once in The Holy Land, they travelled on horseback to Bethlehem. Astride his horse, the Revd Brooks, all strongly-built six foot seven inches of him, must have struck quite an imposing presence.

The journey took took them two hours and then he saw the town of Bethlehem ‘situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens’. In a letter home that Christmas week, he described it as ‘a good-looking town, better built than any other they had seen in Palestine’.

That evening before dark, they rode out of town to the field where the shepherds saw the star. They knew that somewhere in those fields that they now rode through, ‘shepherds abided with their flocks’, two thousand years ago, ‘keeping watch over them or leading them home to the fold’.

The travellers returned in September, 1866, but, though the hymn was quickly written, it gestated in his mind until 1868. I’m sure there were profound thoughts and words from the pulpit, for Rdr. Brooks was a preacher of prodigious power.

In another letter home, this time from Rome, he confided: ‘I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Saviour’s birth, as I heard them a year before; and I assure you I was glad to shut my ears for a while and listen to the more familiar strains that came wandering to me halfway round the world.”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own