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The Story Behind the Christmas Carol "What Child is This"

“What Child Is This?” is a famous and traditional Christmas carol crafted in 1865. The lyrics were composed by William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon residing in Bristol, England. William spent most of his life as a businessman in Glasgow, Scotland, working at the managerial level of the Maritime Insurance Company. He was greatly enticed by traditional English folk songs. And when he started writing the lyrics for “What Child Is This?,” he decided to utilize the melody of “Greensleeves” to create the carol. It is his most memorable and famous creation to date.

Jesus Christ's birth & 3 wise men


In 1865, William was 29 years old when he suffered from a near-fatal bout of sickness. He was afflicted with severe depression, and this near-death experience changed him completely. While undergoing recovery, he experienced a spiritual awakening that inspired him to start crafting hymns. He became an avid reader of the Bible, subsequently wrote the lyrics of “What Child Is This?,” and incorporated the tune of the celebrated English folk song, “Greensleeves.”

Greensleeves was already one of the most aesthetic and beloved melodies of the festive season at that time. Although it’s not a quintessential Christmas tune, its association with the festive season can be dated back to 1642. It was paired back then with Waits’ carol titled, “The Old Year Now Away is Fled.” Also, William Shakespeare refers to this popular tune twice in his famous play - “Merry Wives of Windsor.” 

William Chatterton Dix

His affiliation with the church is vivid through his hymns, which were subsequently published in “A Vision of All Saints,” “Verses on the Holy Eucharist,” and “Altar Songs.” Around Christmas of 1865, he also crafted the poem titled “The Manger Throne.” Then, he crafted other popular hymns like “As With Gladness Men of Old” and “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!” According to expert hymnologists, Dix’s hymns are imaginative, reverent, and simple, yet borderline sentimental. They have always proved to be considerably sincere to their roots. 


The lyrics were inspired by one of William’s verses titled “The Manger Throne.” It urges humanity to accept Christ. The eloquent melody is haunting, and its beautiful essence reiterates the “Adoration of the Shepherds” who paid a visit to Jesus during the nativity. The lyrics pose questions that reflect what the shepherds might be pondering about during the encounter and subsequently offers a response to such questions. 

The first stanza is heavily influenced by his contemporary romantic poets and flirts ceremoniously along the edges of emotionalism. The carol starts with a rhetorical question, condensing the concept of childbirth within a single paragraph. The poet has successfully painted a classic picture of the nativity - the child Christ sleeping on mother Mary’s lap, as the angels and shepherds provide the background score with “Anthems Sweet” and “Watch and Keep” respectively.       

The second stanza offers a momentary reference to “mean estate,” or less than an ideal condition. The poet registers similarity with the first stanza with another rhetorical question. He wonders why the child Christ should be displayed in such a humble environment. The poet tries to decipher the answer analytically,  and reasons that the “mean estate” that refers to the birth of Christ has its roots entangled with his future sufferings. The second stanza alludes to the anguish and distress of Christ's future.     

The poet utilizes the final stanza to expand the emphasis on the people attending the humble scene. He draws inspiration from the Epiphany season and focuses on the metaphorical gifts that are being bought for the infant. His setting flouts the conventional structure of time quite comprehensively, like everyone, starting from the “king” or the “peasant” is offered an equal chance. 

Usage in Popular Culture

“What Child Is This?” was first published in 1871, six years after its origin. It was featured in an influential and prestigious collection of carols in the United Kingdom, titled “Christmas Carols Old and New.” The hymnal was edited by John Stainer and Henry Ramsden Bramley. Stainer was primarily responsible for harmonizing the musical setting. In recent times, the carol has gained quite some popularity in the USA, in spite of its roots being in Great Britain. 


The meaningful lyrics and the soulful melody of the carol evokes a palpable scenario. It gives the feeling that God himself has transformed into the form of man through this baby, and that the Almighty has arrived to rescue humanity. It's a certain and clear sign, which the humans went on to declare with courage and ingenuity. The tribute is fitting, as humans marvel and wonder in amazement the true sense of inevitability, "What child is this?"

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