This is part 29 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.
One of the most beloved carols of Christmas is based as much (maybe even more) on legend as it is from the Bible.
Matthew’s Gospel is where we find the story of the Magi coming to visit the Baby Jesus, “The King of the Jews.” There, Matthew simply says there were “wise men from the East” who brought the baby gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The magi fell down and worshiped the new born king.
It isn’t a long story at all. Matthew tells us all that and more in twelve verses. There is also a great deal Matthew does not tell us. Matthew never calls the magi kings. If they were magi, as Matthew says, they were dream interpreters FOR the royal family and could not be royalty themselves.
Matthew never says how many magi came to visit Jesus. Because they were called “wise men” we can assume there was more than one. It could have been two, it could have been thirty-two or any point in between or even beyond.
The fact that Matthew tells us little has left plenty of room for speculation over the centuries. Even though Matthew calls the men magi and magi were royal dream interpreters, some have speculated that they were astronomers or astrologers because of their emphasis on the star and the way they were watching the sky.
Another assumption made is about the number of wise men. As we have already said, we can assume more than one. Assumptions have been made and legends grown because of the gifts brought by the magi. There were three gifts, therefore there were three wise men.
Over time, and with research done by some, in the Middle Ages, names were even assigned to the three. Most anyone in the time period could give you the names Caspar, Melchoir and Balthasar.
Though it is often used as such, “We Three Kings” is not actually a Christmas carol. It is an Epiphany song. First, I realize it is not Epiphany yet. Epiphany is January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas. We will have completed the series by then and I thought the carol should receive some attention. Second, I understand that some people may think I am splitting hairs between Christmas and Epiphany.
For much of Christian history, Epiphany was a date that rivaled Christmas in importance among people of Christian faith. Limited knowledge of Epiphany and its meaning is a rather contemporary phenomenon.
Epiphany celebrates the coming of the magi. The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas has its roots in the story of Matthew 2, in that the wise men brought gifts to the Christ child.
The song, “We Three Kings,” uses the Matthew 2 story but also depends heavily on the legends surrounding the coming of the magi.
The hymn’s lyricist and composer was John Henry Hopkins, a priest of the Episcopal faith, who though never married or had children of his own loved children, in particular his nieces and nephews.
As Epiphany approached in 1857, Hopkins wanted to give a special gift to his nieces and nephews. He decided to write them a song that would help them to learn the story and traditions of the magi and at the same time bring them entertainment. Though an uncommon occurrence at the time, Hopkins wrote both the lyrics and music for the song.
The song Hopkins wrote, of course was “We Three Kings.” It is apparent in just the title that Hopkins bought into the idea of three wise men. He also, again by the title, showed Hopkins was accepting of the idea of the magi being royalty.
There is speculation that while Hopkins was teaching music at General Theological Seminary in New York. Some believe Hopkins wrote the song for a Christmas pageant at the seminary.
Regardless of the full background, Hopkins song proved so popular among Hopkins’ friends and family, he decided to publish the hymn in his book, Carols, Hymns and Songs. It has since been published many times over by virtually every Christian denomination.
Over its history, “We Three Kings” has received a great deal of recognition as well as a few honors along the way. It was the first exclusively American carol to receive widespread recognition. That isn’t bad for a carol that got its start as a children’s gift.
What is the most original gift you have received?
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.