What does Star of Bethlehem mean?

Neil Young: Star of Bethlehem Meaning

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Album cover for Star of Bethlehem album cover

Star of Bethlehem Lyrics

Ain't it hard
when you wake up
in the morning
And you find out
that those other days
are gone?
All you have
is memories of happiness
Lingerin' on.

[(Some live versions) You might wonder
who can I turn to
On this cold
and chilly...

  1. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    May 2nd 2019 !⃝

    funny how you might interpret this with opposing meanings.

    Seems to me it could be the key phrase 'maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn't a star at all' could mean that this well known symbol of hope for the future is actually just fake news - a farce. It really wasn't a star at all, more like a black hole, a false hope. The good times of the past are gone, friends die, you can't get them back, then you die. No hope, no 'Star of Bethlehem', just good memories that haunt you then leave wishing for more but actually finding death.

    However, due to the prior line about 'light from a 'lamp down the hall' I think that is clearly the wrong interpretation. Rather that there IS hope for the future. Maybe the star wasn't 'merely' a star, there really was something more to it. I doubt Neil is an evangelical Christian and actually believes the historical accuracy of the Biblical accounts, probably just a literary reference for him.

    Because I am a Christian however I have a particular appreciation of this song. Without the Star of Bethlehem I am sitting in interpretation #1. The materialist, naturalistic worldview that just rips the life out of you, there is no hope for anything. Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.

  2. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Dec 16th 2016 !⃝

    The additional verse from live version is also self-explanatory and takes the interpretationof loss / abandonment deeper and darker:

    You might wonder
    Who can I turn to
    On this cold
    And chilly night of gloom
    The answer to that question
    Is nowhere in this room

    I still think the last verse is a message of hope -
    "Yet still a light is shining
    From that lamp on down the hall"

    has just got to be a message of hope.

    "Maybe the star of Bethlehem
    Wasn't a star at all"

    ... maybe it really was a guiding light.

    I hope so. A good friend died yesterday who love Neil Young and this song came into my head. Sure, those other days are gone, but there are memories of happiness, lingering on. And the light from him is still shining.

  3. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Jul 30th 2012 !⃝

    Hope is not a message I get from this song. Written in the after(during?)-math of Neil's breakup with Carrie Snodgress, I take it as the raw feeling he experienced every morning of his life during that time. For anyone that hasn't dealt every morning with the reality through their spouse having an affair, this cuts it to the core.

    The "star" (actress Snodgress) upon which he had placed his love that made a "fool of a man" (see Love in Mind) maybe wasn't a star at all. But after all, he's only a Dreamin Man.

  4. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Sep 13th 2011 !⃝

    I am intrigued by the shocking truth this song conveys about life, but uplifted by what I perceive to be its overriding message of hope.

    I have read other interpretations on other sites, one of which relates the song to the crucifixion and suffering of Christ. My interpretation is much more simple, although not necessarily contrary to such an interpretation. In many ways the two interpretations may actually be consistent and complimentary. Anyway, enough precursor. Here is my interpretation.

    The first two verses are simple enough. They are a lament from the perspective of those whose best days are behind them. The first verse speaks to the bitter-sweet emotion of recalling old friends and better times, and of only having memories of both to cling to. The second verse speaks to the fact that those memories are fleeting. Thinking of the better times without hope for the future will take a toll on you emotionally, but inevitably you will return to those memories because they are all you have. This is a chilling truth: our memories remind us of the good times, and of the fact that they are gone.

    Whereas the first two verses are very depressing, the third is actually quite uplifting in the sense that, in my view, it offers hope.

    (Aside: I am not religious, but I find it difficult to avoid the religious/Christian tone to this verse. I don't know whether Neil is religious/Christian, or whether he is using a Christian narrative as a metaphor for hope generally. I submit that it doesn't matter. I think the point is that no matter how bad things seem, there is always hope.)

    Let's take the last verse line by line.

    "Yet still a light is shining" means that although things are bad, there is still hope. I don't think this needs further explanation.

    "From that lamp on down the hall". Literally, this may mean there is someone nearby, perhaps a loved one or a potential friend who can offer comfort. More figuratively, I could see the light being either: (1) the proverbial light one sees when they have an epiphany; or (2) the light that Christians would typically believe they would see when they are dying and going to heaven. In the case of the first, the epiphany could be the realization that there is an afterlife, or some better place, or just something else besides sadness, loneliness, or death. Similarly, if the "light" is what the protagonist sees as he or she approaches heaven or the afterlife, therein lies the hope and comfort.

    "Maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn't a star at all". In this line, the protagonist is questioning what the star of Bethlehem was. He or she is seemingly saying, "MAYBE it was this or MAYBE it was that." The protagonist is not sure. If he or she was sure, he or she wouldn't say "maybe". He or she would say, "the star of Bethlehem is XYZ." By virtue of the fact that the protagonist is questioning what the star was, he or she is questioning a key symbol associated with the birth of Christ, and therefore the birth of Christ itself. So does the protagonist believe in Christ, or metaphorically, hope? In my view he or she does. The first two lines of the verse exhibit hope in the voice of the protagonist. He or she is saying, "yet, there is light, it is coming from over there." In association with that optimism, the protagonist is seemingly saying, "wait a second here. Maybe things aren't so bad." In this context, I think the comment "maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn't a star at all" means: (1) maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn't just some star in the sky, some myth; (2) maybe it was actually a heavenly miracle coinciding with the birth of Christ; and therefore, (3) maybe Christ is real and maybe heaven is real. Again, I don't think you need to believe in Christ, Christianity or religion. It may be a metaphor for the overriding message of hope. Hope may be your belief in religion, or it may be your belief in something else, or nothing.

    Post script: The chorus to the song is not on the studio recording. Apparently Neil has been known to sing it live. I think it reinforces my interpretation. The protagonist is alone, cold and lonely. Who can he or she turn to? Nobody in the room. But perhaps there is something better out there. There is hope.

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