“What Child Is This?” was penned by William C. Dix (1837-1898). According to “Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions” by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Dix was a successful insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland, when he became seriously ill at age 29. The story goes that he was confined to bed for a long time and became very depressed until he prayed to God and “met him in a new and real way.”
He wrote this hymn and many others. The words come from the poem “The Manger Throne,” also written by Dix in 1865. It is traditionally sung to the English folk tune “Green Sleeves.”
“O, Little Town of Bethlehem” came about as the result of a trip that Phillips Brooks made to the Holy Land in 1865. Osbeck states that Brooks, one of America’s most outstanding ministers of the past century, worshiped at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and was deeply moved by the experience.
Three years later, while a pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, he wanted a special hymn for the children to sing during Sunday School Christmas programs. His memories brought him back to the Bethlehem trip and the peace and serenity of his time there. This is the result:
“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.”
Along with Lewis R. Redner, the church organist who wrote the melody, Brooks gave Christians a hymn that has become a Christmas favorite.
Most Christmas carols and hymns have multiple verses and an unforgettable chorus. In my next column, we’ll continue to look at more Christmas carols and funky Christmas tunes that have become favorites.