O Little Town of Bethlehem

In 1865, the tall young rector of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was in Jerusalem for the Christmas season.   On Christmas Eve, he rode to Bethlehem on horseback, where he attended a worship service at The Church of the Nativity that lasted five hours (from 10 PM to 3 AM).  Three Christmases later, that same preacher was inspired to write a special carol for the children in his church’s Sunday School.  Thinking back to that Christmas Eve in Israel, he composed the words we know so well:

O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see thee lie.

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

the silent stars go by.

Phillips Brooks would later move to a church in Boston, where he became known as America’s preeminent preacher.  But he is still primarily known today for his carol.  That Christmas of 1868, Brooks had given the words to his church’s organist, asking him to produce a tune to match.  The organist struggled at first, but later claimed he heard the perfect tune in a dream.  He scribbled it down as soon as he woke, and managed to teach it to the children in time for Christmas services that year.  The song, written for children, was first published in a hymnal three years later, and quickly became a classic.

Enjoy this version from one of the best singers of all time.

In 2014, I visited Bethlehem.  Even though it was March, I couldn’t help but think about Brooks’ song.  Bethlehem is still a small town, and not very prosperous.  It’s in Palestinian territory on the West Bank of Jerusalem, and most of the signs were in Arabic.  It’s also a tourist town.  When we got off our bus, a man in his forties approached us on the street, holding up a beautiful carved nativity scene that was a little larger than his hand.  “Small size Nativity sets, ten dollars” he said.  For one teenaged girl in our group, this seemed like a deal that was too good to pass up.  She asked her grandfather, who had brought her on the trip, for ten bucks, and paid for her prize.  The man took the money, then reached into his pocket and pulled out something the size of his thumb.  If you looked closely, you could see the Holy Family carved crudely into the tiny piece of wood.  The girl said, “What about the one in your hand?”  The man answered, “I said ‘small size Nativity set.’  This is large size Nativity set, and it’s twenty five.”  The girl’s grandfather smiled grimly and said, “Okay, you got us.  Now move along.”

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee to-night.

After our lesson in street capitalism and a lunch of schwarma at the most American-looking restaurant we saw in Israel, we walked to the Church of the Nativity.  In 327 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine and his devout mother Helena commissioned the basilica to be built over a small grotto where many believed Mary had given birth to Jesus.  It’s a dark, cavernous place, filled with ancient icons and the smell of burning incense, and a striking 14-pointed star with a Latin inscription over the site of the sacred grotto.

For an American evangelical like me, the trappings of Eastern Orthodoxy seem alien.  But as I walked through a door into the adjoining building, I found myself in the Catholic Church of St Catherine.  It’s brightly lit and, although ornate, seems much more like a church we would see in America.  Every Christmas Eve, their Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world.  That day, it was nearly deserted and very quiet.  One of the members of our group accidentally knocked one of the kneeling benches down, and the sound of the wooden kneeler hitting the marble floor seemed as loud as a rifle shot.

How silently, how silently,
    The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessings of His Heaven.

But the most significant moment for me happened after we left the two churches and took a bus to the top of a hill outside the city. There we toured the ruins of Herod’s palace at Herodium, which once loomed over Bethlehem.  It was not his primary residence, but it was a magnificent place in its day, with extravagant living quarters in its four seven-story towers, a Roman-style bathhouse and a large theater.  It’s where Herod was buried, in an elaborately decorated stone tomb.  I could picture Herod and his well-heeled guests watching the latest Greek play (with Herod and his favorite wife sitting in the luxury box—yes the theater had one), dining, drinking, and laughing, oblivious to the humble citizens of Bethlehem just down the hill from them.

No ear may hear His coming,
    But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
    The dear Christ enters in.

We could see an Israeli settlement from Herod’s Palace. It was a beautiful suburban neighborhood, with red-roofed homes, well-paved streets, and a gate manned by armed guards.  It looked much nicer than anything else we saw in Bethlehem.  Our guide, an American Christian, told us that these settlements are subsidized by the Israeli government…essentially, they want to make it as tempting as possible for their citizens to live in Palestinian territory.  Of course, the Palestinians resent this intrusion.  I took a picture of the view with my phone; the Israeli settlement is in the foreground, with the rest of Bethlehem further down the hill.

Bethlehem from Herod's Palace

I thought back to our trip from Jerusalem that morning.  We had to cross through a security checkpoint to get there.  We walked through it on foot before re-boarding our bus.  As we did, we walked past hundreds of  Palestinian men lined up, waiting to be cleared by security so that buses could take them to their jobs in Jerusalem.  The barrier was first built in 2000, during the Second Intifada, a time of suicide bombings and riots by Palestinians and retaliatory strikes by the Israeli military (an estimated 4000 people were killed between the two sides).  To Israelis, this wall is vital to their security; to Palestinians, it is a version of racial apartheid.  The men in that long line didn’t look like they were thinking about politics, however.  The expressions on their faces reminded me of the way Houstonians look when stuck in traffic; only their commute involves a stop of an hour or more each day before riding the short trip to work in Jerusalem, the only place in the region with employment opportunities.  The world hasn’t changed all that much in two thousand years.  I never felt unsafe in Israel, but at moments like this, I saw that (as Longellow once wrote in another famous carol) “there is no peace on earth…for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” 

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
    Be born in us to-day.

As I pondered these things, a member of my group nudged me and pointed to the hillside between the palace and Bethlehem.  There were shepherds out there, Bedouins in dark, hooded garments tending what looked from our lofty perch like little white balls of cotton.  I wondered if that was where the shepherds in Luke 2 had been when the angel appeared to them that night, igniting the sky in a terrifying holocaust of holy light.  I thought about Mary and Joseph, somewhere further down the hill in that little village.  I wondered if they had glanced nervously at Herod’s palace on top of that hill; That same King who lived in Romanesque luxury would soon unleash horrific violence on the small town of Bethlehem, killing infants in a sociopathic attempt to eliminate the Messiah.  Human politics and ambition will always seem to be more powerful and relevant than grace; but two millennia later, Herod’s tomb is a ruin, and Jesus’ tomb is empty.  The child in the manger grew up to change the world like no other human who has ever lived; whereas the King in the Palace is only remembered because of his part in that child’s story.  Grace is intrepid.  Tyranny and violence of all kinds are no match for God’s saving power.

We hear the Christmas angels,
    The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel!


Where Christmas Came From

What are your fondest Christmas memories?  I think of Christmas pageants when I was a kid; walking with my family one Christmas Eve, while my Grandpa whistled Christmas carols; the year my Dad convinced a friend of his to dress as Santa Claus and surprise us at my Grandparents’ house; watching the delight and excitement in my children’s eyes each year when they saw the bounty under the tree on Christmas morning; walking out of Christmas Eve service in 2004 to find it snowing, followed by our one and only Houston White Christmas the next day.  For me, Christmas is music, lights, family, watching old movies, eating good food, and candlelight worship.

It’s easy to believe these are universal traditions, as ancient and widespread as the Christian faith itself.  But that is hardly the case.  I’m reading Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, by Gerry Bowler, and it’s teaching me some new things about my favorite Christmas traditions.

There’s no indication the earliest Christians celebrated Christmas at all.  Christ’s birth is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, and not at all in the writings of Paul.  They were much more focused on His atoning death, resurrection, and His Second Coming.  But by the year 200, Christians began to speculate on the exact date their Lord had been born.  Contrary to what most people today believe, December 25 doesn’t seem to have been chosen to take the place of a pagan celebration on that date (Saturnalia).  At least, that’s not what any Christian writers of that time thought.  Instead, they used criteria that might seem strange to us: For instance, some assumed that Jesus would have been conceived in the Spring, the time of new life, and therefore was born between December 25 and January 6.  At any rate, by the mid-fourth century, December 25 was the accepted date for the feast of Christ’s nativity.

In those early days of Christmas, the emphasis was on charity for the poor and self-examination.  As time wore on, Christmas became more of a party.  By the Middle Ages, yuletide was a time for wild social inversion: During the Twelve Days of Christmas (between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6) slaves would rule over their masters, priests would elect boy bishops to run things in their churches, and poor people could ask their lords for anything they wanted.  In an agricultural world, there’s not much to do at that time of year, so singing, drinking and feasting made sense.  Church leaders of those days used to preach against the drunkenness of the poor, and against rich folks who fled their estates and spent Christmastime in the cities so they wouldn’t have to give alms to their poorer neighbors.

These days, we often talk about a War on Christmas, but the first real War on Christmas came from within the church, not from secular culture.  The Puritans especially hated the holiday, for two main reasons: First, because it wasn’t commanded in Scripture.  Second, because it smacked of Roman Catholicism.  The drunken revelries and anarchy just proved their point: Christmas was a “Popish invention” that disgraced the name of Christ, and His true followers would not observe it.  For fifteen years in England, Christmas was outlawed.  Here in America, Christmas Day was an ordinary workday in many cities until the mid-1800s.

How did our ideas about Christmas change?  Bowler credits Santa Claus, especially after “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823.  The real St Nicholas was a Turkish bishop, born in 270, and had been celebrated by Christians for centuries on December 6 with gift-giving.  Over the years, many legendary gift-givers had joined St Nick in the minds of children at Christmas.  But Moore’s poem brought us a jolly, fat, bearded man in a white-fur-trimmed coat and hat, who rode in a reindeer-driven sleigh and entered our homes through chimneys.  The image of Santa Claus did two things in popular culture: First, it made Christmas a family holiday, not a time for rowdiness.  Santa gave parents an opportunity to indulge their children, while at the same time blackmailing them into good behavior.  For the kids themselves, Santa was a great improvement over more terrifying Christmas visitors such as Perchta the Disembowler, who children in the Austrian Alps believed would cut a hole in the stomachs of disobedient children, removing their guts and replacing them with straw.

Second, Santa made Christmas a much more commercially-driven holiday.  There had been Christmas markets in European villages dating back to the Middle Ages, but now parents felt compelled to make sure their children had a good Christmas.  Merchants jumped on the bandwagon quickly, and Santa Claus became the spokesman for department stores, toy shops and candy emporiums.  In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reaffirmed Christmas as a time to spend with family and to think about those less fortunate.

Bowler’s book has lots of great little nuggets:

–During World War II, American Christmas cards sometimes featured Santa Claus waving the red, white, and blue, or kicking a cartoon Hitler in the keister; while Nazi publications encouraged parents to buy military toys for their kids (One toy catalog said, “What joy! What fun!  A lovely Gatling gun!”) and described Christmas as a time when dead German soldiers came home.

–Many Europeans resent Santa Claus as an American intruder, and there are movements in these countries to teach children about their native gift-bringers.  The book shows a print by a Polish artist of a policeman with Santa in handcuffs, waving a cheery hello to Saint Nicholas.

–While plenty of people have opposed Christmas, no one stands out for me quite like Katsuhiro Furasawa, a Japanese man who was dumped by his girlfriend and founded The Revolutionary Alliance of Men Who Women Find Unattractive.  One of the organization’s goals is to “crush Christmas,” since in Japan, it is considered a time to get away with one’s sweetheart.

None of this takes away from my enjoyment of Christmas.  But it helps remind me that the traditions I love so much aren’t the point.  If you took it all away, we’d still have the Incarnation of the Son of God, an event worth celebrating.  Merry Christmas to you.