Home History of Hymns: "One Holy Night in Bethlehem"

History of Hymns: "One Holy Night in Bethlehem"

"One Holy Night in Bethlehem"
Mary Nelson Keithahn
The Faith We Sing, No. 2097

Image Courtesy Of Wikimedia Commons


One holy night in Bethlehem
the air was filled with song.
Angelic voices sang on high
and shepherds sang along:

Sing glory, glory, gloria!
God’s love is given birth!
Be not afraid! Sing gloria,
and peace to all the earth! *


While we enjoy singing the familiar Christmas carols and hymns during this season, the miracle of the incarnation continues to inspire poets and composers today.

The challenge of each generation of Christians is to re-imagine the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ and reframe Christ’s incarnation, ministry, passion and triumph over death in our own terms.

Without this, we may have a tendency to think of Christ and his life as a historical narrative—a kind of museum of sacred memories. Or we may romanticize Christ’s life as a sort of Christianized version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

The Judeo-Christian tradition treasures memory. However, memory is not a mere recalling of the past as if preparing for an exam; it is a reliving of these formative events and incorporating this old story integrally into our own personal narrative. So we sing a fresh setting of the familiar story to retell timeless events in our own time.

The Rev. Mary Nelson Keithahn (b. 1934) is an ordained pastor and certified church education specialist in the United Church of Christ, living in Rapid City, S.D. She has written over 75 hymns and has contributed many articles for a variety of religious and educational publications.

In addition, Ms. Keithahn has written texts for several children’s musicals and two collections of songs for young children based on stories from the life of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures. Her hymns appear in numerous recent hymnals and congregational song supplements.

Her primary musical collaborator is John D. Horman (b. 1946), who served for 27 years as a music teacher for the Montgomery County schools in Maryland. Mr. Horman has been director of music at Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church in Silver Springs, Md., for 40 years. He is a prominent children’s choir clinician and composer of over 150 anthems for children.

Together they have collaborated on nearly 100 hymns and published 65 hymns in three collections: Come Away with Me (1998), Time Now to Gather (1998), and The Song Lingers On (2003). “One Holy Night in Bethlehem” was included in the second collection. (More information may be found at www.hymnsetc.com.)

This retelling of the story of Christmas, based on Luke 2:8-20, is childlike in both its text and tune. Indeed, each stanza allows us to envision the scenes of Christ’s birth with fresh, clear images in our mind.

The technique of hypotyposis—painting vivid pictures through words—has been an effective tool of hymn writers for centuries. In the wide variety of Christmas carols and hymns that we may sing during this season, some should allow us to reclaim Christ’s birth from the perspective of a child. This hymn allows us to do that.

The refrain “Sing glory, glory, gloria!” allows us to join the angels in the song of peace. The final stanza provides commentary on the Christmas narrative. Interestingly, it follows a pedagogical process that music educators do naturally: Listen, then sing.
The stanza begins with listening: “Be still, and you will hear tonight these melodies of old.” We then are invited to sing: “Then join your voice in harmony until the tale is told.”

Concerning the origins of the hymn, Ms. Keithahn has noted, “John had asked me to write a simple, joyful Christmas text everyone could sing, and this hymn was the result. My children, eight grandchildren and I sang it together in my home church in Minnesota when we celebrated Christmas there several years ago.”

Because of their extensive text/tune collaborations of more than 15 years, it is impossible to look only at the text. The following information on the tune appears in the original collection: “After John received Mary’s text, he found himself whistling the tune before his hands touched a keyboard. Whistling, for him, is often a prelude to composing. Perhaps this is because, as a child, he often heard his father, William Horman, whistle his own melodies too. WHISTLER’S TUNE is dedicated to him.”

* © 1998 Abingdon Press (Administered by The Copyright Company, Nashville, Tenn.) All rights reserved. Used by permission.
One holy night in Bethlehem
the air was filled with song.
Angelic voices sang on high
and shepherds sang along:

Sing glory, glory, gloria!
God’s love is given birth!
Be not afraid! Sing gloria,
and peace to all the earth! *


While we enjoy singing the familiar Christmas carols and hymns during this season, the miracle of the incarnation continues to inspire poets and composers today.

The challenge of each generation of Christians is to re-imagine the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ and reframe Christ’s incarnation, ministry, passion and triumph over death in our own terms.

Without this, we may have a tendency to think of Christ and his life as a historical narrative—a kind of museum of sacred memories. Or we may romanticize Christ’s life as a sort of Christianized version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

The Judeo-Christian tradition treasures memory. However, memory is not a mere recalling of the past as if preparing for an exam; it is a reliving of these formative events and incorporating this old story integrally into our own personal narrative. So we sing a fresh setting of the familiar story to retell timeless events in our own time.

The Rev. Mary Nelson Keithahn (b. 1934) is an ordained pastor and certified church education specialist in the United Church of Christ, living in Rapid City, S.D. She has written over 75 hymns and has contributed many articles for a variety of religious and educational publications.

In addition, Ms. Keithahn has written texts for several children’s musicals and two collections of songs for young children based on stories from the life of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures. Her hymns appear in numerous recent hymnals and congregational song supplements.

Her primary musical collaborator is John D. Horman (b. 1946), who served for 27 years as a music teacher for the Montgomery County schools in Maryland. Mr. Horman has been director of music at Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church in Silver Springs, Md., for 40 years. He is a prominent children’s choir clinician and composer of over 150 anthems for children.

Together they have collaborated on nearly 100 hymns and published 65 hymns in three collections: Come Away with Me (1998), Time Now to Gather (1998), and The Song Lingers On (2003). “One Holy Night in Bethlehem” was included in the second collection. (More information may be found at www.hymnsetc.com.)

This retelling of the story of Christmas, based on Luke 2:8-20, is childlike in both its text and tune. Indeed, each stanza allows us to envision the scenes of Christ’s birth with fresh, clear images in our mind.

The technique of hypotyposis—painting vivid pictures through words—has been an effective tool of hymn writers for centuries. In the wide variety of Christmas carols and hymns that we may sing during this season, some should allow us to reclaim Christ’s birth from the perspective of a child. This hymn allows us to do that.

The refrain “Sing glory, glory, gloria!” allows us to join the angels in the song of peace. The final stanza provides commentary on the Christmas narrative. Interestingly, it follows a pedagogical process that music educators do naturally: Listen, then sing.
The stanza begins with listening: “Be still, and you will hear tonight these melodies of old.” We then are invited to sing: “Then join your voice in harmony until the tale is told.”

Concerning the origins of the hymn, Ms. Keithahn has noted, “John had asked me to write a simple, joyful Christmas text everyone could sing, and this hymn was the result. My children, eight grandchildren and I sang it together in my home church in Minnesota when we celebrated Christmas there several years ago.”

Because of their extensive text/tune collaborations of more than 15 years, it is impossible to look only at the text. The following information on the tune appears in the original collection: “After John received Mary’s text, he found himself whistling the tune before his hands touched a keyboard. Whistling, for him, is often a prelude to composing. Perhaps this is because, as a child, he often heard his father, William Horman, whistle his own melodies too. WHISTLER’S TUNE is dedicated to him.”

* © 1998 Abingdon Press (Administered by The Copyright Company, Nashville, Tenn.) All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.