Once in royal David’s city

Once in royal David’s city. Cecil Frances Alexander* (1818-1895).

First published in Hymns for Little Children (1848) in six stanzas. Alexander wrote hymns for the articles of the Apostles’ Creed: this one is on ‘was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary’. It was printed in the Appendix (1868) to the First Edition of A&M, together with the tune by Henry John Gauntlett* entitled IRBY; since that time it has featured in the Christmas section of almost every hymn book. It has become the traditional opening of many Festivals of Nine Lessons and Carols*, following the example of King’s College, Cambridge, where the solo singing of the first stanza makes a moment of remarkable beauty.

The hymn’s strength is in its story-telling, later mixed with admonition. The ‘Once’ of line 1 is the ‘Once upon a time’ with which fairy-stories begin, and the first two and a half stanzas are a simple and unhurried narrative of the Christmas story. Because it is often used as a processional hymn, the six stanzas perform an important function, leading the choir slowly from the opening lines and the lowly cattle shed to the final ending with the children in white around the throne of heaven. Some books have found the last stanza too sentimental, and have omitted it; others have attempted to rewrite the end of stanza 3, ‘Christian children all must be/ Mild, obedient, good as he’ (the Companion to H82 describes this as ‘a childhood that is neither real nor psychologically sound’ (Volume 3A, p. 199). Thus in H82 there is a replacement stanza by James Waring McCrady, ending ‘yet this child, our Lord and brother,/ brought us love for one another.’ In the next stanza (4) ‘childhood’s pattern’ becomes ‘lifelong pattern’, and ‘He was little, weak, and helpless’ becomes ‘he was tempted, scorned, rejected’.

The final stanza is difficult, because Alexander may have been thinking of children who died young, in an age when infant mortality was more common than it is now. But the association of children with angels, and the portrayal of angels with children’s faces, was common in the 19th century; and the word ‘children’ may be metaphorical and may suggest something other than actual children. In a sense, we all become like children when singing this hymn, and the vision of heaven at the end is profoundly comforting and appropriate to children and adults alike. For the 21st century, H82 has its own solution. Instead of ‘When like stars his children crowned,/ All in white shall wait around', it ends:

Christ, revealed to faithful eye,
set at God's right hand on high.

This is said ‘to give a much more balanced image of the Church Triumphant’ (Companion, 3A, p. 200)The preference will depend on the degree to which the reader or singer is prepared to forego literal-mindedness in favour of imaginative surrender. Those who criticise the end of stanza 3 because they think that children today do not to wish to be mild, obedient and good, may be right. But the magic of the opening stanzas is so great that during the singing of this hymn it encourages the suspension of disbelief that is part of Christmas itself. As one critic has written: ‘To say that Mrs Alexander’s children are unreal in this post-Freudian age is to rationalize the Christmas spirit out of existence’ (2002, p. 286).


Further Reading 

J.R. Watson, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns, Oxford: Oxford University Press2002).

Raymond F. Glover, et al., The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990-1994).

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