Christmas is a time of joy, of singing robustly about the Babe who came to earth 2000 years ago and is the Savior of mankind. So, it is a bit unsettling when we hear the opening strains of the carol “What Child is This?” because the tune is set in the key of F minor. We wonder why the soul-searching question at this time of joy and celebration.
The answer to the title question and the somber mood is dispelled by the chorus which proclaims “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”
The tune is an old British tune called “Greensleeves”, which originally was a ballad about a man pining for his first love, the Lady Greensleeves. It has been said that the tune was penned by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn. While this is not likely, what we do know is that Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, danced to the tune.
We also know that Shakespeare referenced the song in the play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The tune was first printed in 1580 and in 1647 it first became associated with Christmas, with words other than those we know today. “What Child is This” has been sung to the tune “Greensleeves” for over 150 years.
The words of the carol are taken from a longer poem that was written by William Chatterton Dix. Mr. Dix was born in Bristol, England in 1837 and earned his living by working as an insurance agent after he moved to Glasgow. His greatest love was writing prose and poetry that praised Christ Jesus. He wrote two devotional books and scores of hymns including two Christmas carols that we still sing today, “What Child is This” and “As with Gladness Men of Old”.
The scripture text that forms the basis of the carol is Luke 2:9-18. Verse 18 reads:
“And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”
What child is this? That was the question that the people 2000 years ago in Bethlehem and, later, throughout the land pondered.
- Jesus the baby in the manger grew into Jesus the youth who remained in the temple amazing the teachers at His understanding of the Torah. Luke 2:41-50
- Jesus the baby in the manger became the carpenter’s son who taught in a way that befuddled the hometown folks. Matthew 13:33-36
- Jesus the baby in the manger became the One who had authority so that even evil spirits obeyed His command. Luke 4:36
- Jesus the baby in the manger became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John 1:29
- Jesus the baby in the manger became the resurrected Christ who was taken into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. Mark 16:19
What child is this? While the inquiry begins as a question from the dark, the answer is illuminated through the joyous response “This is Christ the King!”
Listen as the carol “What Child is This” is presented to you by the Canterbury Choristers directed by Dr. Newell Wright.
Father, I praise Your name for the gift of the baby in the manger who became my Savior and Lord. May my Christmas celebration be glorifying to You.