The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

What Child Is This?

For Christmas

Version 1
Compare to Version 2, What Child Is This?

Words: William Chatterton Dix, 1865.
Said to be adapted from Dix' poem The Manger Throne
(Alternate Title: Like Silver Lamps In A Distant Shrine)

Music: "Greensleeves," 16th Century English melody
Arranged by Sir John Stainer
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF
Meter: 87 87
Chorus is 68 67.

Source: Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871), Carol #14

1. What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

2. Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

3. So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise a song on high,
The Virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Sheet Music by Dix from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca 1871)

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Sheet Music by E. J. Fitzhugh, 1885
Source: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division,
America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets
(American Memory, Performing Arts-Music)

Sheet Music by J. T. Field from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #108
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

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Sheet Music "Old English" ["Greensleeves"] from Hutchins, Carol #402
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

What_Child_Is_This_402.gif (160105 bytes)

Sheet Music from Rev. Richard R. Chope, Carols For Use In Church (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1894), Carol #48
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Carol-048a.gif (228139 bytes) Carol-048b.gif (226723 bytes)

Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, Second Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1919), Carol #53

Note: The following introduction is given by Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer: Hey, now, now, now.

See A Garritan Community Christmas for MP3s:
What Child is This, Dan Kury
What Child Is This, Toby Bresnahan

Sheet Music from W. Chatterton Dix and Joseph Barnby, "Four Christmas Carols" (London: Novello, Ewer and Co. 1890), reprinted in The Musical Times and Singing Circular, Vol. 31, No. 574 (London: Novello, December 1, 1890), No. 3, p. 3.

What Child Is This-Dix-Barnby_4XmasCarols_3.jpg (117394 bytes)

See also What Child is This? (Link opens in a new window at Sally DeFord Music)

Editor's Note.

First appeared in the privately-printed pamphlet by W. Chatterton Dix, Christmas Carols & Christmas Customs (No publisher, location or date; ca. 1870), Carol #7, p. 2. He noted "Music A.D. 1642," but did not provide any further details. The pairing with "Greensleeves" is thought to have been the work of Sir John Stainer; that song appeared in England as early as 1580 and was paired with numerous sets of lyrics in the following years.

This is a change in Verse 2, Line 3: "Good Christian! fear, for sinners here" (a singular Christian vs. the plural Christians above). In the second line of the second chorus, there is another slight change: "The cross be borne for me and you." The text as printed in Bramley and Stainer is, presumably, the version authorized by Dix (subject to the observation that editors take liberties with carols and hymns, despite the protests of authors).

Although a number of commentators have asserted that this carol was reworked from stanzas from The Manger Throne whose first line is "Like Silver Lamps In A Distant Shrine," a side-by-side analysis of the two carols seems to disprove that notion. The carols neither share a common meter, nor do they share a common theme or common imagery. If anyone can shed additional light on this issue, please let us know.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)

There is a misconception that the words to the tune "Greensleeves" -- which is the tune used in this carol -- was written by King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). The song is a product of the sixteenth century, and was mentioned in Act Two, Scene One of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The tune was used as the basis for a number of other lyrics.

The lyrics for "What Child is This?" were written around 1865 by Englishman William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), who wrote other carols, including "As With Gladness Men of Old" (1859). It is unknown who merged Dix's lyrics and "Greensleeves", but quite possibly it was John Stainer (1840-1901), who made a harmonization.

Robert Joseph, The Christmas Book

"If this carol sounds very familiar, it may be because you have heard it sung as the famous English folk song, "Greensleeves." This melody has a long history, beginning with its first mention in 1580 as a "new northern dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves." It later was used as a political ballad, and even makes an appearance (by reference only) in Shakespeare’s "Merry Wives of Windsor." In 1642 it was first used in a Christmas carol, "The Old Year Now Away Has Fled." The currently popular words were added by William Dix during the reign of Queen Victoria."

Keyte and Parrott, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

‘What child is this?’ was written for the tune of ‘Greensleeves’ in about 1865 and appeared with Stainer’s setting in Christmas Carols New and Old in 1871. See ‘The old yeare now away is fled’ (NOBC no. 135) for a seventeenth-century variant of the ‘Greensleeves’ tune.

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003)

"Greensleeves," the tune to which "What Child Is This?" is sung, has a long history. It was apparently first licensed or registered in 1580 to a Richard Jones (with a set of lyrics that were not in the least religious, nor even very respectable), but it is probably older still. Some theories have it that Henry VIII wrote the song. In any event, Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth is said to have danced to it; Shakespeare mentioned it by name twice in The Merry Wives of Windsor; traitors were hanged as hired bands of musicians played its strains in lugubrious tempo. Almost three centuries later, about 1865, William Chatterton Dix published "The Manger Throne." Three stanzas were later culled from that poem and fitted to "Greensleeves," thus creating "What Child Is This?", one of our loveliest carols.


This melody is the beautiful Greensleeves. It dates from Elizabethan time, possibly even earlier. The song was first registered in 1850 to Richard Jones with lyrics that were neither religious nor respectable. Shakespeare mentions it by name in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in which is it played while traitors are hanged. In 1865 William Chatterton Dix (English) wrote "The Manger Throne", three verses of which became "What Child Is This."

Notes from the Hymnuts

First appearing in Christmas Carols New and Old (London, 1867), edited by Bramley and Stainer. The latter half of the first stanza was made into a refrain for all three stanzas (see What Child Is This - Version 2). The words were extracted from a longer poem by William C. Dix.

Greensleeves is a traditional folk melody used widely in the 1580s for many texts. Stainer's harmonization was first used in the Christmas Carols New and Old.

Larry Marietta's Music Notes, Sunday Morning Services at FCCB (First Congregational Church of Berkeley), December 7, 1997

"What Child Is This" was written by English poet and lay theologian William Chatterton Dix as a poem entitled "The Manger Throne." It was first used as a hymn text in Sir John Stainer's Christmas Carols New and Old, 1871. It's well-known tune, GREENSLEEVES, is a traditional English ballad with an interesting history. The earliest known publication of this tune is in two books of 1580, one by Richard Jones with the title "A new Northerne Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves", and the other by Edward White, entitled "A ballad, being the Ladie Greene Sleeves Answere to Donkyn his frende."

In his Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare mentions it twice: in Act Two, "I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words; but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of 'Green Sleeves' "; and in Act Five, "Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of 'Green Sleeves.' " One of its early appearances as a hymn tune was as the setting for "The old year now is fled" in New Christmas Carols of 1642.

See this extensive note on Greensleeves from William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859, pp. 227-233.

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