Like Dickens himself, young William Chatterton Dix coughed and stoked the coal-stove to drive out the damp chill of an English winter day.

He sat at the rugged wood table rubbing his hands together to create a bit more heat, then lifted his fountain pen to scribble another line… much as Mr. Dickens had done while writing A Christmas Carol only 22 years earlier…

…………………

With less than a month now until that famous Christian HOHOHOliday, I think I can squeak in an early post related to the holy and hallowed.

Even as an atheist, I’ve taken a Scrooge-like possession of sacred carols and music that festoons our halls and jingle our bells.

One of my favourites of the Christmas season is the carol we all know today as What Child Is This?, but I came to know first-off as Greensleeves (?a tribute to my many childhood runny noses?)

As a young piano prodigy *hah* (like driving a car as a youngster, I could barely reach the instrument’s pedals) one of the earliest pieces I learned from my austere music teacher was… you got it… Greensleeves.

But I’ve always pondered – yet never known or understood – why two names for the same carol? What’s the subterfuge that brought this about I wondered.

Let’s look a bit deeper:

Before What Child Is This? was born in Bristol, England in 1865, it took its first breaths as a celebrated English instrumental folk song, Greensleeves.

Some erroneously claim that Greensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, was written by Henry VIII in order to woo Anne Boleyn; or, that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; or that the song has Irish origins. All good guesses, but… wrong, wrong, and wrong.

For all of these claims there is no actual evidence, yet still the stories circulate widely. Even the soap opera TV series The Tudors makes a show of Henry VIII composing Greensleeves.

In truth, the music to Greensleeves was first published and registered at the London Stationer’s Company in 1580.

On September 3, 1580, Richard Jones was licensed to print A New Northern Dittye of ye Lady Greene Sleeves. He then printed a book in 1584, A Handful of Pleasant Delights, in which the song was reprinted as A new Courtly Sonet of the Lady Green sleeues, to the new tune of Greensleeves.

The song was immediately immensely popular and off to a flying start. Even William Shakespeare cited it in his The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1602, 17 years after the song’s first publication and widespread success. His character Falstaff calls out: “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!

Now let’s jump ahead a couple of hundred years and drop in on businessman William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon from Bristol, England.

William actually spent most of his life in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a manager of the Maritime Insurance Company.

In 1865, 29 year-old William, a man extremely fond of traditional English folk songs, suffered a near-death bout of sickness. Afflicted also with severe depression, this traumatic experience changed him completely.

While recovering, he became an avid reader of the Bible and experienced a spiritual awakening that inspired him to take up crafting hymns in celebration.

While healing, he wrote the lyrics of The Manger Throne, which later came to be known as What Child Is This?, incorporating the tune of the celebrated English folk song, Greensleeves.

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.

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

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

Today, it’s been sung and recorded by countless artists of all genres. Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Mathis, Carrie Underwood, Josh Groban, Bing Crosby, the list goes on and on…

And, as the late radio host Paul Harvey used to say… “now you know… the rest of the story…

And maybe to entice you into the glow and spirit of the festive season to come, here is my recent recording of the tune on my faithful guitar: