Ninety years later, the question remains tragically apt. But these days, I see more in the poem, especially at Christmas time. The link for me is in that last line: “Hoping it may be so.”
Last Saturday Anne and I caroled with other Fly Creekers during the Cooperstown Christmas Walk. (Other groups were strolling the candle-lit streets, too; and some had better costumes and arguably better pitch than ours, but never mind.)
Among our noels was “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a carol often dismissed as sentimental, even syrupy. (That’s mostly the traditional melody’s fault.) But a close look at its first verse undercuts that judgment. The carol carries a strong and realistic Christmas message - one, as later poets have said, that has been lost behind the “rock-candy glare” and the “plastic Babes in Manger.”
The carol says that two awesome forces converge at Christmas: “the hopes and fears of all the years.” (The fears, mind you, not just of two thousand years ago, but of every age before and since.) It’s not hard to list those fears. They are born from our human skill to imagine the future and to worry.
Topping the list of fears is, of course, death - our own and our loved ones’. And following physical death are all the lesser deaths that erode the human spirit: injustice, illness, accident, danger of every sort; loss of job, income, home, friends, reputation - and even the ravaging of Earth by our own selfishness.
But Christmas counters all that. Whether we humans take the old, old story as fact or myth, we are moved by how it embodies our deepest, strongest wish: for hope in the face of fears. Each age offers its own grim proof that we just can’t make it on our own; and so we want help, from outside and above the human arena. We want meaning, purpose, ultimate release, even from death. And that’s the promise in the old, old story: Creation’s author enters human affairs, enters humanity itself, to give us hope.