On Christmas Eve 1865, a young minister stood on the hill overlooking Bethlehem where the shepherds had watched their flocks on the night Jesus was born. The impression of that starry night never left Phillips Brooks. Three years later he was asked to write a hymn for the children of his Philadelphia parish for their Christmas service. The words "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" were already in his mind. Brooks' church organist, Lewis Redner, set the words to music, declaring that the tune was "a gift from heaven." Brooks became an outstanding preacher and possibly the most highly esteemed American clergyman of his day.
From the jubilant praise of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
" to the hushed reverence of "Silent Night
," many hymns celebrate the birth of Christ. Brooks' tune falls into the latter camp, painting a serene picture of the newborn king sleeping under twinkling stars while angels quietly stand guard. As the Gospels explain, the already small town of Bethlehem was overcrowded when Joseph and a pregnant Mary arrived because of a census that required people to travel to register in the hometown of their ancestors. With no room at the inn, Mary gave birth in a stable and placed Jesus in a manger. Aside from the adoration of the shepherds who were told of Jesus' birth, there was little reaction to the event outside of Bethlehem until Judea's King Herod was told by the Magi that a messiah was born. Determined to protect his throne at any cost, he ordered a massacre of all boys in and around the town in hopes of assassinating Jesus.
John 3:16 notes the sacrifice God made by giving his son to the world to deliver mankind from sin and death: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The hymn's final verse shifts from depicting the scene of Jesus' birth to praising God for this "wondrous gift":
No ear may hear His coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him still
the dear Christ enters in
The tune is most often paired with the music "St. Louis," composed by Lewis Redner, a real estate broker who was also the organist at Brooks' church. Redner noted the "simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure." Christmas Eve was fast approaching and he hadn't come up with anything until he finally got some inspiration from above. "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, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868."
UK listeners commonly hear a version set to "Forest Green," an English folk tune named for a village in Surrey. While visiting the village in 1903, Ralph Vaughan Williams heard the original song "The Ploughboy's Dream," and transcribed and arranged it under the new title.
In a 1999 Atlantic article, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky explained the hymn's significance in the aftermath of the American Civil War, which ended in 1865, the same year Brooks visited Bethlehem: "What gives these lines their mysterious charge is buried memory; Brooks, best known for his famous sermon on the Civil War dead, wrote his Christmas carol when, after the war, many little towns of the North and the South were unnaturally silent, because so many of the young men were gone. 'The hopes and fears of all the years' involve the Republic itself, and in that context the town's 'deep and dreamless sleep,' beneath the silent stars, is the more unsettling precisely because it is dreamless, and therefore deathlike."
Several musicians have covered the enduring hymn, with popular versions by Gene Autry, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson, Dolly Parton, and Annie Lennox, among many others.
This was used in several holiday-themed movies, including Christmas In Connecticut (1943), Black Christmas (1974), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Ref (1994), The Family Stone (2005), Four Christmases (2008), and A Madea Christmas (2013).
It was also featured in several TV shows, including The Bob Newhart Show ("His Busiest Season," 1972), What's Happening!! ("Christmas," 1976), The Simpsons ("Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire," 1989), Little House On the Prairie ("A Christmas They Never Forgot," 1981), Roswell ("Samuel Rising," 2001), It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia ("A Very Sunny Christmas," 2009), and Call The Midwife ("Christmas Special," 2013).