Posted in Music History, Music stories

What Child is This?

Throughout my years of life and musicianship, I’ve had lots of favorite Christmas songs. But more recently, one that wasn’t high on the list of my favorites has become one. And in today’s post, I’m going to explain a little about the song and why I’ve come around on it.


What Child is This is one of the few Christmas carols written in a minor key. Minor keys usually evoke a sad or melancholy feeling, where major keys, usually evoke a happy or triumphant feeling. So what’s going on here? Well, you can ask the question, “which came first, the melody or the lyrics?” to a song, and in this case, the answer is the melody. An old English tune named “Greensleeves” about a woman…with….green….sleeves. Logical, right? So what does it have to do with Christmas? Nothing. The tune fit the text, and it isn’t clear (but doesn’t like it was intended) if William Chatterton Dix, the author of the text intended it to be set to music at all.


So what’s the story behind the words? This is where it gets fun. In 1865, Dix experienced an unexpected and severe illness that left him bedridden and suffering from depression. Not fun at all! But this experience (and his recovery) led to a spiritual renewal in him, and somewhere around the Christmastime of 1865, he penned these words.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.


These words are extremely powerful, and set to the tune “Greensleeves” are a perfect backdrop for the full life of Jesus. At Christmas, yes, Christians celebrate His birth, but His whole purpose was not to solely be born, but to redeem the world through His death and resurrection. THAT is why I’ve changed my opinion on this song. It’s not just about a cute little baby born in a stable, laid in a manger (that part may or may not be true) on a silent night (definitely not true! There were people and animals everywhere!), but it’s the full story. Some songs focus on a snippet or a section of a story, and leave you wanting more. This gives you a full picture, leading to the last verse, reminding us that it isn’t just about a birth, not only about nails and a spear piercing, but salvation for the whole world!


Leave a Reply