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.
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 meek, and lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.
3 And our eyes at last shall see Him,
through His own redeeming love;
for that Child so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heav'n above,
and He leads His children on
to the place where He is gone.
4 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.
Source: Psalms and Hymns to the Living God #236
|First Line:||Once in royal David's city Stood a lowly cattle-shed|
|Title:||Once in Royal David's City|
|Author:||Cecil Frances Alexander (1848)|
|Notes:||Swahili translation: See "Mjini mwake Daudi"|
st. 1-2 = Luke 2:4-7
st. 4 = Mark 10:14
st. 5 = Rom. 8:34
To help children understand the Apostles' Creed words "who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary," Cecil F. Alexander (b. Redcross, County Wicklow, Ireland, 1818; Londonderry, Ireland, 1895) wrote this text and published it in her Hymns for Little Children (1848). Five of her six stanzas are included; the third stanza is omitted.
A good mingling of the biblical story and Christian theology, the text sets the nativity of Christ into a much larger framework-the history of salvation. Alexander's words enable us to look back and to look forward from this historic event. Stanzas 1 and 2 recall Christ's humble birth. Stanza 3 focuses on Christ's childhood and identity with humanity. Stanzas 4 and 5 look forward to the sharing of Christ's glory with his children.
As a small girl, Cecil Frances Humphries wrote poetry in her school's journal. In 1850 she married Rev. William Alexander, who later became the Anglican primate (chief bishop) of Ireland. She showed her concern for disadvantaged people by traveling many miles each day to visit the sick and the poor, providing food, warm clothes, and medical supplies. She and her sister also founded a school for the deaf. Alexander was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement and by John Keble's Christian Year. Her first book of poetry, Verses for Seasons, was a "Christian Year" for children. She wrote hymns based on the Apostles' Creed, baptism, the Lord's Supper, the Ten Commandments, and prayer, writing in simple language for children. Her more than four hundred hymn texts were published in Verses from the Holy Scripture ( 1846), Hymns for Little Children (1848), and Hymns Descriptive and Devotional (1858).
Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship services, especially as a glorious processional; anytime during the church year in conjunction with worship services in which this part of the creed or eschatological themes (st. 5) is preached; church school programs.
--Psalter Hymnal Handbook
Once in Royal David's city. C. F. Alexander, née Humphreys. [Christmas.] First appeared in her Hymns for Little Children, in 1848, p. 30. It is based on the words of the Creed, "Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary," and is in 6 stanzas of 6 lines. It is usually given in a correct form, and ranks as one of the most popular of Mrs. Alexander's hymns for children.
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)
In 1848, Cecil Frances Humphrey published Hymns for Little Children, which contained thirteen hymns written to explain phrases from the Apostles' Creed. One of these was “Once in Royal David's City,” which elaborates on the phrases “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Two years later, she married Rev. William Alexander, and was then known as Mrs. Cecil F. Alexander.
Though she likely would have disapproved of any tampering with her texts, many hymnal editors have omitted stanzas or edited phrases throughout the hymn. The first two stanzas are always included. Both have largely escaped editing, except for the fifth line of the second, “with the poor, and mean, and lowly,” where “mean” is usually changed to “meek” to reflect modern language usage. The original third stanza (beginning “And through all His wondrous childhood”) is usually omitted because it extols mildness and quiet obedience in children – qualities which are not emphasized today. The original fourth stanza (“For He is our childhood's pattern”) is only occasionally omitted, and is subject to only a little editing. The line “He was little, weak and helpless” is occasionally altered, as is the third line of the original fifth stanza, “For that Child so dear and gentle. That stanza (“And our eyes at last shall see Him”) is sometimes the closing one, but the sixth stanza (“Not in that poor lowly stable”) is usually retained. Again editors often alter the last two lines of the sixth stanza.
The themes of the hymn divide the original six stanzas into three pairs. The first pair tells what happened – the Lord and King of all creation came down to live as a creature in a humble place. The second pair describes one perspective on the silent years of Jesus' life, when He was a child before He began His earthly ministry. This theme was especially appropriate to the original audience for this hymn – children – but since it is now used more generally, and since perspectives on children have changed, this theme is often subdued in modern hymnals. The third pair looks forward to Jesus' Second Coming, and the contrast it will present to the humble scene in stanzas 1 and 2.
IRBY was composed for this text in 1849 by Henry Gauntlett and was first published in an 1850 pamphlet in London with keyboard accompaniment. The tune name comes from a village in Lincolnshire, England. Gauntlett created a four-part setting for the 1868 Appendix of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Arthur Mann composed a four-part setting for the tune while he was organist at King's College, Cambridge. Since 1918, this hymn has been used as the processional in the annual service of Lessons and Carols that is held at King's College on Christmas Eve, so Mann's setting is the one in common use.
This hymn is suitable for Christmas, or for a service where the Apostles' Creed is a theme. It could be used as a prelude or special music, as in “Three Christmas Preludes, Set 2” for organ. The setting of IRBY begins with a subdued statement of the melody with a simple countermelody, then grows to a full, rippling statement, but ends quietly, as it began. It also makes an excellent choral selection. Because of the wide popularity of the King's College Christmas Eve service, it is common to imitate that choir's procedure, which is to have a soprano solo sing the first stanza a capella, and the full choir sing the second, both from the rear of the church, and then have the congregation join the singing as the procession begins. Though this is an effective way to emphasize the simplicity of the carol, a lack of variety would make it seem naïve or dull. A quiet, simple, a capella arrangement of “Once in Royal David's City” for four-part choir opens with a treble solo, as in the King's College tradition, but remains quiet, with the second and third stanzas sung by half of the choir at a time. Even in the final stanza, a forte dynamic is not indicated until the final phrase. While this setting begins in tradition, it follows a non-traditional path of remaining hushed, though rich. Other wonderful settings begin with the congregation or the men of the choir. One glorious choral setting of “Once in Royal David's City” is accompanied by piano and organ duet, in which the organ largely supports the choir and the piano provides decoration above the voices. Another choral arrangement of “Once in Royal David's City” intended for congregational singing begins with the full assembly and has organ and string quartet accompaniment.
Tiffany Shomsky, Hymnary.org