Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
“What Child Is This” is one of the few Christmas songs that has a question for a title. More importantly, however, it asks and answers a very good question, one that every person ought to consider: who is the child in the manger?
The first of this song’s three verses identifies some of the faces and details surrounding the baby in the manger (Luke 20:1-20), but the focus is unmistakably on the baby. In the first half of the verse we ask a question: what child is this? The second half leads us in proclaiming the answer: this is Christ the King, whom we must haste (hasten) to bring laud (praise).
As with the first verse, this verse begins with a question: why lies he in such mean (humble) estate (condition)? The answer, as we go on to explain, is that he became one of us to bear the cross for sinners like you and me. Thus the call is not to turn away from the Word made flesh, but to hail (greet) him.
In the light of the call of the previous verse, we finish this song by encouraging ourselves and others to own (claim) the baby in the manger as king, to enthrone him with joyful, loving hearts and with joy at his birth. The question this verse thus asks is this: will you? Will you own the Christ, this babe, born of Mary?
W. Chatterton Dix, a 19th century English businessman, adapted the words of “What Child Is This” from his own poem “The Manger Throne.” He is remembered also for writing the hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” The tune for “What Child Is This,” called Greensleeves, predates Dix’s words by many centuries. Shakespeare references it twice in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, meaning that it dates at the least to the 16th century.