O Little Town of Bethlehem (Christmas History 10)


Bethlehem by Edward Lear (source: victorianweb.org)

The Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks, a priest from Philadelphia, and his words were set to music by his church organist, Lewis Redner.  His inspiration was a Christmas visit to Bethlehem in 1865, which he related in one of his Letters of Travel, published in the year of his death, 1893.

Last Sunday morning we attended service in the English church, and after an early dinner took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. The great church of the Nativity is its most prominent object; it is shared by the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians, and each church has a convent attached to it. We were hospitably received in the Greek convent, and furnished with a room. Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks,” or leading them home to fold. We returned to the convent and waited for the service, which began about ten o clock and lasted until three (Christmas). It was the old story of a Romish service, with all its mummery, and tired us out. They wound up with a wax baby, carried in procession, and at last laid in the traditional manger, in a grotto under the church. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.

In the same volume, Brooks wrote a letter about another Christmas Day, spent in a very different location: Bombay.

Do you care to know how we spent Christmas? I will tell you. We arose in the cool of the morning at six o clock. After we had a cup of tea, some fruit and bread and butter, the open carriage was at the door, and we put on our pith helmets to keep off the sun, and drove away. First we went to the Jain hospital for animals. The Jains are a curious sect of Hindoos, and one of their ideas is the sacredness of animal life. So they have this great hospital, where they gather all the sick and wounded animals they can find, and cure them if they can, or keep them till they die. The broken-legged cows, sick pigeons, mangy dogs, and melancholy monkeys are very curious. We stayed there a while, and then drove to the Parsee burial-place. The Parsees are Persian sun-worshipers, who have been settled here for centuries, and are among the most intelligent and enterprising citizens. Their pleasant way of disposing of their dead is to leave a body on a high tower, where vultures devoted to that business come, and in about an hour consume all its flesh, leaving the bones, which, after four weeks of drying in the sun, are tumbled into a common pit, where they all crumble together into dust. You see the towers with the vultures waiting on top for the next arrival, but no one is allowed to enter.

Then we came home and had our breakfast, after which we drove into the town, whence I sent a telegram of “Merry Christmas” to you at eleven o clock. We went to the service at the Cathedral, which was very good. Then I drove out to the Government House, where the Governor, Sir James Fergusson, had invited me to lunch. Very pleasant people were there, and the whole thing was interesting. The drive out and in, about four miles each way, was through the strangest population, and in the midst of the queerest sights. After my return (I went there alone) we wandered about the native bazaars and saw their curious trades. At eight o clock, Mr. Kittredge gave us a sumptuous dinner at the Byculla Club, where with turkey, plum pudding, and mince-pies, we made the best which we knew how of that end of Christmas Day. After that, about ten o clock, we wandered out into a native fair, where we saw their odd performances until late into the night, when we drove home along the cool sea shore, and went to bed tired but happy, after the funniest Christmas Day we ever passed.

From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books.  Please come back tomorrow for the next article!

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About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Books, Christianity, Christmas, Christmas History, Faith, History, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to O Little Town of Bethlehem (Christmas History 10)

  1. Always remains one of my favourite Christmas carols!

    Liked by 1 person

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