Once In Royal David’s City
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.
This carol is known around the world through the BBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of the Service of Lessons and Carols. Kings College Chapel, Cambridge is the setting for this service which has taken place each year since 1919, even during the Second World War when the great windows of the chapel were removed and stored for protection in the hills of Scotland.
The carol Once In Royal David’s City always begins the service with one of the boy choristers chosen to sing the first verse unaccompanied. The director waits until the last minute to choose the soloist in order to reduce anxiety.
The hymn’s writer, Cecil Frances Alexander who also wrote All Things Bright and Beautiful, and There is A Green Hill Far Away donated most of the proceeds from her publications to homes for disadvantaged persons. She spent a great deal of time visiting and advocating for the poor, although she herself was a member of the upper class.
Ms. Alexander’s hymns including this carol were directed at teaching children about Jesus which the third verse clearly shows:
For he is our life-long pattern; daily, when on earth he grew,
he was tempted, scored, rejected, tears and smiles like us he know.
Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.
I first sang this carol with professor Richard Linn at Southern Seminary in 1982. Dr. Linn had just returned from sabbatical in England and led a Lessons and Carols service at the end of the fall semester before Christmas break. I will never forget being surrounded by a 500 voices (mostly men) singing the final stanza:
Not in that poor, lowly stable with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven, where his saints his throne surround:
Christ, revealed to faithful eye, set at God’s right hand on high.
— Rev. Doug Vancil