Appalachia Christmas Music

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Oh beautiful star of bethlehem

Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks, the pastor who spoke at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral service. Before becoming a pastor, Brooks taught at Boston’s Latin School. Brooks was discouraged by his students lack of interest and left his position to attend the Episcopal Theological Seminary. After Brooks graduated in 1859 he was asked to pastor the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.

Brooks was very successful. He was widely known as a powerful and persuasive speaker. Under Brooks guidance the church grew and prospered. But as the Civil War began to take a tole on the entire country, members of the church began to fall away and Brooks found it harder and harder to offer them the peace they so desperately needed.

When the war finally ended, Brooks thought the healing of his church and the country might began, however the unexpected death of Lincoln shattered his dreams.

After speaking at Lincoln’s funeral Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land in an effort to reconnect with his God and to allow his mind and body to rest. Brooks visited during the Christmas season and was able to ride a horse along the route Joseph and Mary took from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

As Brooks rode alone in the darkness with the stars shining above him he was moved in an overpowering manner. Brooks felt like he was able to experience a small taste of the magic and wonder that must have been alive on that very first Christmas.

Once Brooks returned from his trip abroad he had a renewed strength to pastor his church. He wanted to share his Christmas in Bethlehem experience with his congregation and the world at large but he always seemed to fall short when he tried to convey the feelings of awe and wonder he experienced.

A few years later, as the Christmas season quickly approached, Brooks tried once more to put his experience into the most meaningful words. Proceeding differently than he had in the past, Brooks simply wrote down what came to mind-and as he did-Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem was born.

Brooks shared his newly written poem with his friend, Lewis Redner. Redner was moved by the poem and finally understood the breadth of what his friend had experienced while visiting the Holy Land.

Redner tried in vain to compose a line of music that would fit the words Brooks had penned. On December 24 Redner accepted defeat and went to bed. The perfect tune came to Redner in his sleep-it fit the poem perfectly.

The song become an instant hit in the Philadelphia area and by the time Brooks died in 1893 Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem had become a favorite Christmas Carol across the country and beyond.

A quote from the book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas gives us an interesting view of both Brooks and the song:

“In a sermon Brooks once said, “It is while you are patiently toiling at the little tasks of life that the meaning and shape of the great whole of life dawns on you.” On a horse, in a tiny village, a half a world away from his home and family, the meaning of Phillips Brooks’s life and the purpose behind his work were brought into sharp focus.”

I like the quote from Brooks-I firmly believe the little bits of every day life are what make life so precious and its where the truest pieces of life can be found. Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem is my all time favorite Christmas Song. And I love Pap and Paul’s version of the song.

You can hear their version below.

We are very grateful and humbled by all the folks who have purchased Pap and Paul’s Songs of Christmas cds-THANK YOU! It really is packed with some of the best Christmas music I have ever heard.

If you’d like to buy a copy go here: Songs of Christmas go here.


*Source: Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. Print.

This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig in December of 2013.

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  • Reply
    November 30, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    I just love Christmas music! I must have over a thousand songs in different styles. I never tire of hearing about Jesus and our Father. Would love to add to my collection!

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    November 29, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    The story of the history of the song is very interesting and brought new meaning to it as I heard it being played.
    Thanks for sharing this.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    November 29, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    I, too, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and how Phillips Brooks came to write it. Thanks for the strory. I had read it but needed to be reminded. I enjoy hearing Pap and Paul sing the Christmas carols (and other songs, too!).
    And of course I’m always thrilled to hear Chatter and Chitter sing and play! “Christmas is a-comin’!”

  • Reply
    Steve in tn
    November 29, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    I always enjoy your posts about song stories. Thanks.

  • Reply
    November 29, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Once again, I have learned a wonderful lesson on the history of the song and its author. As always, I really enjoy learning about the Applachians and the history of its people.
    Please, I don’t wish for a free CD, but I will buy one.
    Your friend in Princeton, TX

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    November 29, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    I agree with you about “the little bits”. I’ve tried for some time to put my thinking into words without much success. I just think that wisdom and happiness and worth are not the exclusive property of the educated or the rich or the powerful. In fact I think those things often act as interference with finer things. Conventional wisdom about what “success” is and how to achieve it is more often wrong than not; thus not wise at all. One very common bit of the world’s advice is to “follow your heart” but without further qualification it is actually terrible advice that can lead to all kinds of errors. But many people think it is wisdom.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    November 29, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for letting us know about Phillips Brooks, that was very interesting. I bet he never realized how important that funeral was. The whole world has changed so much since then, but Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem is still a favorite around the world. Those first 6 songs on the Playlist sure will put folks in the Christmas Spirit. My favorite of all the 133 songs is #8. Chitter really does well on that one…Ken

  • Reply
    November 29, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    What an interesting and inspiring story about a beautiful Christmas carol! (P.S. I’d love to add the CD to my library of Christmas music!)

  • Reply
    Jann Ramsey
    November 29, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Surely do appreciate your site. It’s hard to find people who cherish our Appalachian past; even harder to find folks who honor it in the present.

  • Reply
    November 29, 2015 at 10:08 am

    These Christmas carols never get old. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem is great, and I went on to listen to “Away in the Manger.” The song was much like a time machine taking me way back to a little girl and her sisters in a Coal Camp in WV.
    Nestled on a hillside was the home of a sweet neighbor we called “Dunn Dunn.” She had no children of her own. She was often our babysitter, and just happened to be keeping us that Christmas eve so long ago while our parents wrapped up last minute shopping at the nearby town. We had already gone with her to a Christmas program at the little church where we received a gift wrapped in white tissue paper my Mom often used.
    Mrs. Dunn was always so great at making everything seem magic. She explained Santa to me in such a way that I peered out her window for long intervals hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa with his sleigh riding over the mountains.
    These new carols just can never conjure up sweet memories such as that. I can’t let my sister read this or she will surely cry, because we never talk about the lady who was such a wonderful part of our childhood. Second Mom would work as she still visited us for years after we moved. I can still smell her husband’s cigars and see his daily paper beside his armchair. Thanks Tipper for letting me remember a wonderful lady with such a sweet spirit that she helped make Christmas back in those days .Now I have the sniffles!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 29, 2015 at 7:34 am

    Love this song, always has been my favorite carol. I have a copy so please do not add my name to the give away

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