By Mary Wenzl
The Christmas carol, “What Child is This,” has been my favorite carol since I was a little girl. I loved the melodious tune and the words. I sing in the alto range, and the song usually has a lovely harmony part that is easy for me to sing. It was one of the first Christmas songs I learned to play on the piano. I also learned to play it when I studied the pipe organ. I had the opportunity to learn the pipe organ while at my home church, Heritage Presbyterian Church, growing up. The church has a Pipe Organ that was rebuilt in 1971 by Gene Bedient, who started a church organ building business here in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1960s. I love the sound of a true church pipe organ, and it was a joyful experience learning how to coordinate my hands and feet to play music on a fine musical instrument.
I sang the alto part to this song in a girls’ musical small group while attending Millard Lefler Junior High School (now Lefler Middle School). The vocal music teacher at the time was Carla Piper. I learned from her that the tune used for “What Child is This” actually came from a song registered at the London Stationer’s Company in September 1580, by Richard Jones, as “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves”). Known today as “Greensleeves,” this popular folk tune appeared in Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor (written c. 1597; first published in 1602). The character Mistress Ford refers twice to “the tune of ‘Greensleeves'”, and Falstaff later exclaims: “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!” These allusions indicate the song was already well known at that time.
My teacher had written new words to this melody, using a poem by Nebraska Poet Laureate, John G. Neihardt. She entitled the song, “I Will Sing.” Our small group, called the Minnesingers, got to debut her song by singing it in the Rotunda at the Capital Building at a ceremony which was attended by the poet laureate. The association between the melody for “Greensleeves” and my favorite Christmas song, “What Child is This,” make very special memories for me. I relive these good memories every time I hear this Christmas carol.
The lyrics to “What Child is This” are accredited to composer William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon residing in Bristol, England. Dix created the song during a time of personal crisis. In 1865, when he was 29 years old, he suffered from a life-threatening bout of sickness. He was left with severe depression and the experience changed him completely. During his recovery, he experienced a spiritual awakening which inspired him to write hymns, including “What Child Is This.” He used the celebrated English folk song, “Greensleeves,” as the melody.
By that time, “Greensleeves” was already a beloved melody used during the festive season though it was not specifically made to be a Christmas song. The original tune was associated with this festive time dating back to the year 1642. Christmas and New Year texts were associated with the tune from as early as 1686, and by the 19th century almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain “On Christmas Day in the morning.” Dix’s “What Child Is This” soon became a favorite rendition of the tune.
As a Christmas gift to you, I have included two links so you can listen to my personal picks of the song.
John Groban, What Child is This? (Because I like his voice)
What Child is this?….Sovereign Grace ( includes lyrics)