STLT#228, Once in Royal David’s City

When my minister Linda Hoddy retired, I was allowed a chance to take books from her study to fill my own library. I found there a bounty of books on history, theology, pastoral care, and Biblical studies. Scant were the books on worship and the many meditation and prayer books, but even there I got a few. About a year later, when Linda decided she really wasn’t going back into the pulpit (something that changed last year when she accepted a position as a very part time minister of a small fellowship in Connecticut), she brought me a couple of boxes full of those meditation manuals, books of prayers, and other assorted goodies, including Carl Seaburg’s Communion Book, Celebrating Easter and Spring, and Great Occasions.

But the one book I long admired, the one book I most wanted – his 1983 collection Celebrating Christmas – never made it my way. And I can understand why: this collection, to the best of my memory, was brimming with readings and service ideas, a treasure trove of December delights.

I tell you this, because it is one of Seaburg’s lyrics that we sing today. (We last sang his words in early November, when I wasn’t inclined to do much more than sing and hit publish.)

Technically, it is the lyric written by prolific Irish poet and lyricist Cecil Frances Alexander; according to Hymnary.org, she wrote nearly 400 poems and lyrics, mostly for children. The original lyric humanizes the young Jesus and helps the meaning become more accessible; similarly, Seaburg’s recasting helps put the Christmas story into context and offers a lesson in what it might mean for us.

Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed;
so may we when life turns hard find in love our stay and guard.

Shepherds came to see this wonder, and to kneel in holy awe
at that lowly stable manger where the infant lay on straw;
so may we this happy morn honor every child that’s born.

From afar three magi journeyed to that stable rude and bare,
to pay homage to the infant, offering gifts both rich and rare;
so may we our gifts bestow, whether we be high or low.

In that happy Christmas spirit, hear the angels from on high
sing their ancient salutations: joy’s a gift you cannot buy.
So may we, with heart that sings, share the truth this season brings.

If I loved the tune more (Irby, from that big pile of English Victorian tunes), I’d say it’s the perfect carol for a children’s Christmas Eve service, or for a Lessons and Carols service. That said, this tune just doesn’t do it for me. And while this is our only 8.7.8.7.7.7, it can easily be sung to tunes with 8.7.8.7.8.7, like Julion (Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter) or Westminster Abbey (Sing Out Praises for the Journey, coming in July), both of which seem more suited to the words.

That being said, I do like this carol.

Still wish I had that book, though.

3 Comments

  1. I am one of those Christmas saps for whom All Things Christmas Can’t Go Wrong*. I love this hymn, and I think the tune is lovely. I am, however, intrigued at the idea of singing the words to the tune of “Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter,” which works quite well. As for Westminster Abbey… meh. Much too pedestrian a tune.

    *I reserve the right to change my mind as we work our way through the Christmas section of the hymnal.

Leave a Reply