Hymn Guide: Once In Royal David’s City

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The moment is magic. A hush descends as the Christmas Eve service is about to begin. And then a single child’s voice breaks the silence, singing: “Once in royal David’s city…” This tradition, first started at King’s College in its annual service of Lessons and Carols, has spread throughout the Anglican world and now to churches of all denominations.

The hymn was written by Anglican poet Cecil Frances Alexander and published in her 1848 text, Hymns for Little Children. The appealing tune, IRBY, was written for the text by Henry John Gauntlett. Choirmasters and musicians should maintain a lively tempo, especially when singing most or all of the verses.

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Verse by Verse

Can you imagine being the boy in the King’s College Choir who sings the first verse alone on a BBC broadcast estimated to reach 370 million worldwide? I don’t think I’d be able to sleep the night before! To address this problem, the choirmaster at King’s College does not select the boy to sing until the moment has arrived; the chorister has mere seconds to prepare (and no time at all to get anxious!). He remembers the words, finds the opening note, takes a breath, and begins:

Verse 1

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

Drawing on Luke 2:7, the hymn begins by depicting a mother and her baby and then identifying them as Mary and Jesus Christ. Though simple, this functions as a sufficient introduction to the hymn as a whole. Unlike other Christmas Carols, “Once in Royal David’s City” does not introduce any other characters from the Christmas story. We do not meet Joseph, shepherds, angels, or magi, and the only reference to oxen is by negation in the final verse.

Verse 2

He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
And his shelter was a stable
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor and mean and lowly
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

The second verse develops the theme of Jesus’ humility, of the one who “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7). He who is “God and Lord of all” nevertheless came to “stable” and “stall,” foreshadowing his compassion for and ministry to “the poor and mean and lowly.”

Verse 3

And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey
Love, and watch the lowly maiden
In whose gentle arms he lay
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.

Verse three focuses on the theme of obedience, both Jesus’ obedience and that of Christian children today, in imitation of Christ. Some object to this latter concern, with Erik Routley calling it “characteristically Victorian moralism” (Hymns Today and Tomorrow, 77).

Routley is right regarding “mildness”—Jesus’s Jerusalem adventures as a twelve-year-old could hardly be called mild (see Luke 2:41-52)! But obedience is certainly a proper virtue for all Christians, including children. Moreover, the thematic movement from humility to obedience simply mirrors Paul’s treatment of Christ in Philippians 2:7-8.

Verse 4

For he is our childhood’s pattern
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

Though we do not have an extensive record of Jesus’ childhood, it is right to note that he grew as do all children: progressively, step-by-step, from total dependence and vulnerability to increasing independence and strength. Yes, it is a bit sentimental to sing that “tears and smiles like us he knew.” But it is probably more accurate than the infamous line in “Away In A Manger”: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

Verse 5

And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love,
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above;
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.

Where Jesus had moved from heaven to earth, the fifth verse reverses the order and tracks the movement of children from earth to heaven. Without reference to the crucifixion or resurrection, Jesus has now ascended to heaven, where “he leads his children on.” This verse is sometimes omitted, which keeps the hymn from becoming overlong. Nor is much lost thematically, as the final verse covers similar conceptual territory.

Verse 6

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

The reference to stable and oxen here serves a double function. First, it recalls the shed and manger from the opening verse, forming a lovely bookend to the hymn. Second, by negating the stable and oxen, the hymn shifts our attention from looking down to looking up, from the “lowly” to “heaven.” Our eyes thus lifted up, we arrive at the profound final couplet, in which Christ and the children are finally united, children together of God on high.

On Video

The first video features the iconic King’s College Choir of Men and Boys, singing on Christmas Eve in 2013. This recording benefits from a lively tempo, the omission of verse 5, and a gorgeous descant by Philip Ledger on the final verse. The second video by singer Sufjan Stevens is a contemporary rendition of the first three verses with guitar and drums.


Image: “Two Choir Boys” by Blanche Paymal-Amouroux (1893), at Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

December 23, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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