12 Days of Christmas Carols- What Child is This?

206px-Greensleeves-rossetti-modHere we have a Christmas song whose original tune might still be more famous than the new seasonal lyrics.  “What Child is This?” is set to the old Renaissance love song “Greensleeves.”  A series of folks songs and ballads about “the Lady Greensleeves” were written in England between 1580-1584.  Often played on the lute, “Greensleeves” is a classic Renaissance “lover’s lament,” where the singer cries over lost love and longs for the day that he might win back his lady.  I’m sure that this song was considered public domain and freely modified over the years.  At one point it had 18 verses, each followed by the chorus.  It’s still fairly common to hear this tune with no intended relation to the Christmas carol, and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about using this one in worship services.  Still, it’s awfully pretty.

For whatever reason, folks really liked to trot out “Greensleeves” around Christmas.  This seems to have been an established tradition as early as 1686, and even back then folks knew that they’d better change the lyrics.  It’s just not right to make passionate love the centerpiece of the holidays.  So folks would put different words to the tune, changing them up pretty freely until the 19th cent.  That’s when “What Child is This?” took the majority ownership.

The story goes that in 1866, William C. Dix, only 29 years old at the time, contracted a life-threatening illness and was confined to his bed for several months.  He was sorely depressed during this time, as you can well imagine, and so he wrote poetry.  One of the poems, originally called “The Manger Throne,” was later to be paired up with “Greensleeves” and became “What Child is this?”  It contrasts the sweet picturesque setting of the nativity with the ultimate fate which awaited Jesus.  This is an important balance that we ought to keep in mind.  While there’s nothing wrong with being sweet and focusing on familial love and the delightful concept of a baby Jesus, we have to always remember that this was only the first step towards the Cross.  This Jesus became man for a reason.  He came to suffer and die for our sins.

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.


One thought on “12 Days of Christmas Carols- What Child is This?

  1. The second verse was exactly the reason I chose this carol for evangelistic caroling on Christmas Eve. I wanted to make sure the programme would go there and avoid sentimentalism, so this carol came after ‘Let All Mortal Flesh’ and the lesson describing the Annunciation to the shepherds. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ was attractive too, but (besides being perhaps impossible to translate meaningfully into Chinese) it seemed too subtle; ‘What Child Is This’, pointing as it did to the atonement, seemed to comport well with the lesson that followed, the Prologue to John’s Gospel.

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