A child, whose parents are turned away by the innkeeper, is born in a stable among animals.
The now-famous “What Child Is This?” has a storied history: Sir John Stainer combined a popular 16th-century English folk tune (“My Lady Greensleeves”) — a love song with far-from-religious roots — with three verses from William C. Dix’s “The Manger Throne”.
Dix, an insurance manager, had written the poem in 1865 as he recovered from an illness, highlighting the Christmas child’s humble beginnings, born among animals and soon greeted by shepherds:
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?
Why lies He in such mean estate… Good Christian, fear: for sinners here; The silent Word is pleading.
The English carol first appeared in print in 1871. Listen to a classic take from The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Cleobury:
Enjoy a unique take for countertenor and harp, arranged and performed by Benjamin Wenzelberg and Anna Kirby, recorded live in the studios at WGBH with From the Top.
Post updated: January 3, 2019.