What Child Is This?

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!


Congratulations, everyone! We have reached the final hymn of our Twelve Days of Christmas Carols: What Child Is This?. Thank you so much for reading these articles; I hope you learned a lot and have a deeper appreciation for your favorite Christmas hymns.

Without further ado, let’s get into the topic of today’s blog post.

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History of the Hymn

William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), an Anglican layman, was born in Bristol, England, as the song of a surgeon. His father had written a biography of the poet, Thomas Chatterton, which accounts for the middle name he gave his son. Additionally, it reveals the affection and intense passion for poetry which the father passed on to his son. Dix spent most of his life as a businessman. As a young man, he moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where he pursued a career working as a manager for the Maritime Insurance Company in Glasgow, Scotland.

While working in Glasgow, Dix fell seriously ill. Confined to his bed for an extended period, he underwent a genuine spiritual crisis. Dix spent most of his time in prayer and reading Christian literature. He came through the crisis as a true man of faith, devoting much of his later poetry to Christian themes. Dix wrote several hymns, at least three of which survive to this day—What Child Is This?, As with Gladness, Men of Old, a carol for Epiphany, and Alleluia! Sing to Jesus.

We know of Dix’s church affiliation only through his hymns that were published in Altar Songs, Verses on the Holy Eucharist, and A Vision of All Saints. Hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that some of Dix’s hymns are “horribly sentimental,” but are generally “simple, reverent, sincere, imaginative, not above the average comprehension, and two of them at least have proved to be continuously serviceable.”

What Child Is This

What Child Is This? comes from a longer poem of Dix titled “The Manger Song.” First published in 1865 in Great Britain, the carol quickly became popular in the United States as well. The song begins in the manger with the Christ Child sleeping on Mary’s lap, angels and shepherds accompanying the holy scene. The second verse proceeds to ask why He would be lying “in such mean estate.” It goes on to speak of Jesus’ purpose—to plead for the salvation of sinners—and alludes to the nails and the cross that He will face as a man.

The third verse assumes to a joyful tone, inviting believers to praise, worship, and present gifts of incense and gold and myrrh to the Messiah. The reason is simple: the King of kings has come to bring us salvation, so we should respond joyfully in his honor.

In 1898, William Chatterton Dix died in Cheddar, Somerset, England, and was buried in the church cemetery there.

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Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, 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!

Musicality of the Hymn

The tune we associate with the carol,‘Greensleeves,’ is a traditional English tune that preceded What Child Is This? by at least a century, probably more. It began as a love song, and people may have sung it as a favorite drinking song. Today, we hear it sung both as a love song and as a sacred song. The tune is one of the most beautiful and beloved melodies of the season.

Though not exclusively a Christmas tune, its association with Christmas goes back to at least 1642, where it is paired with the Waits’ carol, The Old Year Now Away Is Fled. The great baird and playwright, William Shakespeare, also refers twice to ‘Greensleeves’ in his play, Merry Wives of Windsor, helping to date the tune to the 16th century.

‘Greensleeves’ play is in a minor key, lending the song tones of sadness and sorrow, especially in the first two lines. However, while the key remains minor, the last two lines bear an enthusiastic, joyful character, providing a nice contrast. The emotive harmonies definitely complement the words of the carol, starting in solemnity and mystery and ending with a jubilant cry about the Incarnation of Christ.

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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 the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Theology of the Hymn

What Child Is This? joins the rich heritage of Christian Christmas hymns, combining beautiful, deep lyrics with swelling, haunting melodies. It causes one to reflect upon the identity of the Child lying in a manger, to consider God’s miraculous plans and incomprehensible fulfilling of his promises. The carol invites all the world to rejoice in the mysterious, wondrous love of God for the world, and the beauty of the Messiah’s birth.

Stanza One

Influenced by the Romantic poets of his day, William Dix perhaps skirts the edges of sentimentality in stanza one. Beginning with a rhetorical question, “What child is this?,” the poet condenses Luke 2:8-16 into a single question, painting a picture of a classic Nativity scene with the Christ Child sleeping on “Mary’s lap” while angels sing with “anthems sweet” and shepherds “watch are keeping.” In truth, though, Dix does not misinterpret the Scriptures; he merely follows in the steps of tradition regarding the scene at Bethlehem. He opens the dialogue about who this newborn infant is, causing us to step back as well and genuinely consider the implications and meaning of Emmanuel, God with us.

Stanza Two

Stanza two makes a brief reference to the less than ideal conditions— “mean estate”—in which the idyllic scene of the previous verse occurs. Much like stanza one, the hymnist opens with a rhetorical question, “Why lies he in such mean estate?” Essentially, Dix asks why Christ should be in such a humble setting “where ox and ass are feeding.” After all, He is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is, in fact, a question with which the disciples–and the Jewish people even today–still struggle. The prevailing belief at the time was that the Messiah would come as a great King and Warrior, to conquer the all-powerful Roman Empire and restore Jerusalem and Israel to a place of peace, prominence, and prosperity.

A child born to a lowly Nazarene family, lying in the feeding trough of animals, and wrapped in swaddling clothes utterly contradicted that theory. And as we know from the rest of the gospel stories, Jesus did not come to judge and destroy, but to seek and save the lost.

The Answer

Indeed, the original second half of this stanza, not found in many modern hymnals, provides a more complete response to the question:

Nails, spear shall pierce him through;
The cross he bore for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary!

Dix’s answer to the reason for the “mean estate” under which Christ was born lies in His future suffering on the cross. The Messiah came, not as a mighty warrior, but as a poor, Jewish rabbi who never traveled 200 miles away from His hometown. He suffered mockery and ridicule, persecution and flogging, death on a cross, and abandonment by His Heavenly Father. Complete and total humiliation was His, the Son of God and the “Word made flesh.”  

Stanza Three

In the final stanza, the poet expands the circle of those attending this humble Nativity scene. Drawing from the Epiphany season and the gifts brought by the Magi, Christians in the past, present, and future, take our place at the side of the manger, bearing metaphorical gifts of “incense, gold, and myrrh.” In this setting, Dix defies the conventional class structures of his time; the gospel invitation is open to both the “peasant” and “king.” In a sentiment very common in hymnody, “the King of kings” will be “enthrone[d]” in “loving hearts.”

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Concluding Thoughts

As mentioned, this is the last installment in our Twelve Days of Christmas Carols. Hopefully, you enjoyed the articles. I plan to do more mini-series in the future, so please stay tuned, as there will be many exciting developments coming next year.

NGT will not be posting a blog tomorrow. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! May God bless your time with friends and family.

See you in 2019!

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