The Story Behind: What Child Is This?

Talk about being torn in two; I can never decide which version of the song I like best, the folk song “Greensleeves” or the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” It doesn’t really matter to me which song is playing, as I enjoy the hauntingly, beautiful melody no matter which lyrics are being sung. This melody, when being sung as the folk song, is most associated with King Henry the Eighth of England. As the story goes, the king wrote the lyrics to “Greensleeves” while he was courting Anne Boleyn. (Which makes you wonder if green was her favorite color.) But the tune was originally a popular drinking song that predated the king’s efforts by several hundred years. So how did this drinking song become a beloved Christmas carol? Here’s the rest of the story.

William Chatterton Dix was an insurance man by trade and wrote poetry by night. However, if you asked his friends and family, they would have said that he was most passionate about his poetry and considered his job as a secondary aspect of his life. His writings covered a wide variety of thoughts and subjects. It wasn’t until 1865, when a near-fatal illness caused him to go on bed-rest for many months, that he began to reflect on his faith. He would lie there and read the Bible or the works of respected theologians. As soon as he was physically able, Dix began to write hymns reflecting his belief in Christ and the power of God.

At that time, Christmas wasn’t the commercial celebration it is today. Most conservative churches, like the Puritans, forbade gift-giving, decorating, or even acknowledging the day. People just didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ. It was believed that if the birth of Christ was set aside as a special day, it would become a day of pagan rituals rather than the serious day of worship it should be. So, serious hymn writers just didn’t write about Christ’s birth.

As Dix never shared with his friends or family why he decided to write the poem “The Manger Throne,” we will never know what inspired him to write about the holy birth. Why he decided to write the poem doesn’t really matter. It’s the fact that he did write it that’s so important. While the baby is the focal point of the song, it’s the musings of the confused observer that make the song so interesting. Dix imagines visitors coming to look at the baby lying in the manger. As each person pays his respects, the verses weave the story of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection while triumphantly praising the infant’s divine nature. And this is all done in three verses!

The poem “The Manger Throne” was published about the same time as the American Civil War was ending. It became a popular Christmas poem in both the North and the South. At some point, an unknown Englishman recognized that the poem had the same rhythm as the folk song “Greensleeves,” and the lyrics became attached to the melody. Unlike many other writers of popular Christmas carols, Dix lived long enough to see his simple, fervent poem transform into a Christmas carol.

Once heard, the melody of “What Child Is This?” (aka “Greensleeves”) cannot be forgotten.Whether sung a capella or accompanied by a guitar, this song tugs at the heart-strings. It’s equally exciting when sung by a choir or performed by an orchestra. If you check out the library’s catalog, you will find many different versions of the song. I especially enjoy this instrumental versions of the song found in: A Fresh Aire Christmas by Mannheim Steamroller.

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2 thoughts on “The Story Behind: What Child Is This?

  1. Another great history on another fantastic Christmas classic. Can we learn more about “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy next??? That is one of my favorites.

  2. Joe – I’m glad you’re enjoying the histories of these Christmas carol classics. I have one more written for next week, but it’s not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”. Assuming the readers want more blog articles like this one, I’ll add it to my list of things to write about. However, you’ll have to wait until December 2016 before I’ll publish it! : )

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