One of the hymns that we will sing on Sunday, Dec. 18 will be “Once in Royal David’s City,” written by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1848) in 1848. Mrs. Alexander’s goal was to write hymns for children to illustrate the catechism and other Biblical doctrines, but not to “dumb them down” simply because they were for young people.
Other hymns she penned include “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away.” She compiled a collection of her hymns for children entitled, “Hymns for Little Children” in addition to other collections for children, and her hymns have been included in many hymnals through the years. In addition to her hymn writing, she was an avid volunteer, supporting the poor and needy. “Once in Royal David’s City” (originally titled “Christmas”) is found at hymn 225 in the Trinity Hymnal. The text is a complete telling of the gospel story; from Christ’s birth to the triumphant meeting of the Lord in heaven of all His saints.
An interesting point to the last verse of this hymn is the mentioning of “His children” being gathered all around Christ at the heavenly throne along with all of the saints who have gone before. It was not uncommon for children to die in the Victorian time period, and no doubt this verse bore special meaning to the children of that time period who saw the death of their friends and acquaintances more than is seen today.
The tune for this text, Irby, is by Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) who composed many hymns tunes for the church (some say as many as 10,000!) and his tunes can be found in many hymnals today. Gauntlett’s melodies are known to be beautiful, singable, and excellent settings for the texts for which he composed them. “Once in Royal David’s City” has been made famous in part by its use at the world-renowned Lessons and Carols that can be heard annually at King’s College Cambridge, with the first verse sung by a single boy soprano, followed by the choir, and then the congregation.
We praise God for the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, at this time of year, and this hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City,” helps us do just that in a memorable and beautiful manner.