Songs of Christmas…What Child is This?


This is part 13 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

As a pastor, it is not uncommon for me to hear from someone saying, “We need to sing more of the old hymns. At times it makes me tempted to go through the hymnal and find the oldest hymns in the book. Along with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we discussed several days ago, today’s selection could easily make the list. The song’s history goes back at least as far as King Henry VIII or England who lived from 1491-1547. This is the same King Henry who broke from the Roman Catholic Church when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an anulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1527.

According to legend, King Henry wrote the original lyrics of “Greensleeves” when he courted his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The song became permanently tied to King Henry through the work of William Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The song was originally registerd to a man named Richard Jones in 1580. In truth, music scholars believe the tune is much older. It is an ancient English folk song and people have written as many as 20 different sets of lyrics for use with the song. For much of it’s life, “Greensleeves” was a song living in the pubs of England. It was a popular drinking song almost as beloved by Englanders as “God Save the Queen.”

It is doubtful that when William Chatterton Dix began writing the words to his poem “The Manger Throne” he had “Greensleeves” in mind at all. Dix was a poet, not a lyricst. It is said that for Dix it was all about poetry though he made his living in the insurance industry in Glasgow Scottland. For him, his business, insurance, was just a means to an end, writing poetry.

Tragedy struck Dix with a near fatal illness that left him confined to bed for months. During this time he reflected on his faith and read his Bible. When he did regain his strength he was inspired to write his greatest work, including “What Child is This?”

In an era where Christmas was not a commercial enterprise and the Church worked hard to keep it as a day of worship, few writers wrote about the birth of Christ. Dix bucked the trend. There is no record as to why Dix choose to write on the first Christmas but it is known that he was inspired. He wrote “The Manger Throne” in a single sitting.

Dix published the poem just as the Civil War in the United States was coming to an end. The poem not only spoke to those in Great Britian but also to Christians in both the North and the South in the United States.

As inspred as the words of Dix might be, they would probably be forgoten by most, only a few serious readers of poetry remembering them had it not been for the efforts of an unknown Englishman who paired Dix’s lyrics with the “Greensleeves” melody under the name, “What Child is This?”

Unlike many others, Dix actually did live to see his words become famous. And, as we all know, today it is a Christmas classic.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.


Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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