Until a few weeks ago, it didn’t really occur to me to think whether a Christmas hymn was great. It didn’t occur to me to question whether one might be poetically better than another, or where they might fit into the scale of great hymns in general. But a few weeks ago I saw in my calendar that I was supposed to write a post on a Christmas hymn, and so I began scanning through the ones I knew. I narrowed my selection further and further as I examined their different facets, until I had two remaining. I simply couldn’t decide which to write about, and after asking several family members which they liked better, I decided to write about both.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is the second of these hymns. The first was Angels From the Realms of Glory, which I wrote about last week.
Rhyme and Metre
Of course the first thing I always look at in a poem or hymn of any kind, is its structure and poetry. In most places “O Little Town of Bethlehem” satisfies even my standards. The common miss-rhyme “Heaven/given” and an occurrence of the word “us” to rhyme with itself, are the only departures from strictly perfect rhyme, and in a poem with fully forty rhyming words, that is pretty tolerable!
Flow and Content
Added to the merely structural merits of this hymn are the other aspects of good poetry, namely an overall flow and progression of ideas, which are certainly quite good. The general impression of the poem is that of a well-written piece, even if we don’t stop to analyze each point. The threads which the poet has drawn into his hymn, and the allusions or similes he draws, are at times so subtle that it takes a thorough examination to uncover them. For instance in the first stanza he makes mention of the town of Bethlehem supposedly lying still and silent that first Christmas night, and then opposes the external darkness to the advent of the true Light. Which brings me to my next point.
More than Just the Christmas Story
Of course all Christmas hymns necessarily include the nativity story—we would be very surprised if they didn’t—but some of them stop with the Child in the manger, while others take it a little further. After all, the birth of Christ is of little importance without His death and resurrection, and the hope which that gives us for the future. In this hymn the author marks the similarity between how silently and unobtrusively the Son of God came into the world, and how He likewise comes into our hearts. Stanza four, commonly omitted from hymnals, ties this in still more strikingly, saying that Christmas comes once more wherever hearts are open to receive it, regardless of the time of year; and the final stanza concludes by asking Christ to be born in us today, as He was in the stable long ago.
A Tune that Gives Emphasis to the Words
In truth the writer of the hymn can’t take much credit or blame for the tune which has been affixed to his work. Sometimes a great poem will have a horrible tune, or a mediocre poem will receive a powerful one, but it does have an impact on the overall impression of the hymn. In this case, it only lends power and splendour to an already majestic poem. Whether you prefer “Forest Green” or “St. Louis,” the two most widely accepted tunes for this hymn, you can easily see the effect it has on the words. Personally, I am very familiar with both tunes, and I like one or the other better at different times. They are both good solid pieces of music, with a great deal to recommend them, and of course, the associations of Christmastime.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
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.
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!
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Christmas hymns are one class of hymns that it is very hard to add to, because in many case the traditions and memories surrounding the them are half the charm. It’s not easy to bring in a new song at this time of year, and make it seem anything but new. So why not go over your old favourites and decide that after all they could hardly be made better? Why not sing them with an admiration of their merits which only enhances the fondness we already have for them? Why not remember that some of them really are the greatest Christmas hymns ever written?
We wish you all a very Merry Christmas from Sheep Among Wolves Publishing!
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