The 12 Days of Christmas Music in 2014, Day 6: Bethlehem

Word of the day: “Bethlehem”, from “Bethlehem” by Over the Rhine

Despite its primary association with the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem has a lot of troubling connotations too. Bethlehem is where there was no room for Mary and Joseph. Bethlehem is the site where, two years after Jesus’ birth, according to Matthew 2, Herod ordered every boy aged two and under to be killed. By the way, throughout the medieval period, towns and villages performed what were called medieval mystery plays as part of holiday celebrations. The annual mystery play at the Coventry Cathedral in England was based on the gospel of Matthew and depicted this event. This is where the “Coventry Carol” comes from.

Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1567)
Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1567)

Also in medieval England, in 1247, a priory was built in London which became known as the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem with the express purpose of hosting the bishop of St. Mary of Bethlehem whenever he decided to come to England. In 1402 it became a hospital for lunatics and, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII this hospital became the “royal foundation for the reception of lunatics.” It has been an asylum for the mentally ill ever since, and this is where the term “bedlam,” often associated with madness and uproar, comes from. (It also used to be known as Bethlem; the English are always cavalierly dropping syllables when they don’t feel like saying them, e.g., Worcestershire sauce.)

Bedlam is now in partnership with the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry and is a major site of psychiatric research. But it used to be the epitome of mental health abuses. In the eighteenth century visiting hours were open not only family and friends of the patients but also to the public at large for a small fee, and curious onlookers came in steady streams to ogle the “mad” (see below).

William_Hogarth_Bedlam Rake's Progress
Gentility touring Bedlam from A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth

So why bring up all this hard stuff about Bethlehem? At times I have worried that a Christmas countdown of cheer and words like marshmallows could seem indifferent to the numerous concurrent problems and heartbreaks. On the beginning day of the countdown as I wrote the post in New York City, thousands of others marched to protest the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others and to highlight the problems of race relations in the United States. Yesterday terrorists attacked a school in Peshwar, Pakistan, and the current death toll is 148. A wise friend of mine says that whenever she hears of mass killings, she thinks of her high school choir, a group of 40, imagines them all in a circle, and then thinks of how many such groups are represented in the event. This tragedy equals about three and a half choirs. Translating abstract numbers into faces and lives that you know and love seems a far better way to grasp the magnitude and impact.

Cemetery in Bethlehem, Arkansas, the oldest in the area

Wanting to recognize these realities as well, I chose this song, “Bethlehem,” from Over the Rhine’s latest holiday album, Blood Oranges in the Snow. I’ve posted songs from Over the Rhine before, and they remain one of my favorite groups ever. This new entire album pays tribute to this other side of the season without wallowing in despair over it either. The New York Times described the album Blood Oranges in the Snow as “quiet, countryish reflections on family, mortality, hard times, chilly weather and hope against the odds” with songs set just after a job layoff, by a graveside, or just in somber thought. As the Times says, “they insist on consolations and new starts, but they’re not celebrating, just hanging on.” See the lyrics to today’s song at the bottom of the post.

For all its mixture of hope and heartbreak, shepherds and soldiers, peace and pain, the original etymology of Bethlehem is “house of bread” from the Hebrew [בֵּית לָחֶם]. Even as we need daily bread, we still don’t know what will fill the days. Hopefully they will be a mix of joy and sorrow and not sorrow alone. Like our current general association of Bethlehem with the birth of Christ instead of with the massacre of the innocents, hopefully the terrible parts of our history will be turned around to better remembrances. Like Bedlam changing from the prime example of mental health abuses to a key site of medical improvement, hopefully the shameful patterns of our past will be righted to make amends going forward as much as possible. Hopefully we will remember being fed more than that of being hungry, and hopefully, going forward, we will make more room in the inn for those who currently have nowhere to rest.

Bethlehem 3 by Banksy
Bethlehem 3 by Banksy

BETHLEHEM, by Over the Rhine

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Have you been forsaken
In your dark and dreamless sleep
Your heart is breaking
And in your wounded sky
The silent stars go by

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Be still tonight be still

Mary she was just a kid
Jesus was a refugee
A virgin and a vagabond
Yearning to be free
Now in the dark streets shining
Is their last chance of a dream

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Be still tonight be still

Cradled by a crescent moon
Born under a star
Sometimes there’s no difference
Between a birthmark and a scar

Oh little town of Bethlehem
With your sky so black
May God impart to human hearts
The wisdom that we lack
Should you chance to find
A hope for all mankind

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Be still tonight be still



2 thoughts on “The 12 Days of Christmas Music in 2014, Day 6: Bethlehem”

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