“What Child is This?”

Dear Reader:

“What Child Is This?” is my favorite Christmas carol… hands down…because of the creator’s original history- the story behind the story of this song- intertwined with my own family’s history.

The famous Christmas carol, penned in 1865 by English writer William Chatterton Dix on his “death bed” (he later recovered however), asks the question the shepherds probably asked the night of Jesus’ birth… “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” and answers “This is Christ, the King”.

Sometimes out of the worst of times comes the most talented and remarkable works…in this case from an maritime  insurance agent into a gifted hymn writer. At the age of 29 Dix was struck with a near fatal illness and consequently suffered months confined to his bed.

During this time he became severely depressed. Yet it is from this dark period of bouts of hopelessness that many of our favorite hymns were created…including the most popular “What Child is This?”

Interspersed in his thoughtful lyrics, set to the tune of the medieval English song Greensleeves, are references to shepherds, angels, ox and donkey, incense, gold, and myrrh – familiar figures and objects in a traditional nativity scene (also called a crèche).

In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi was visiting the small village of Greccio, Italy.  As Christmas approached, he was struck with the idea of creating a scene to represent the birth of Christ for the people of the village.  This was a novel idea, and as such he requested and was granted permission from the pope to create the first nativity scene, to be displayed during Midnight Mass.

It was a live scene – real baby, real donkey, real hay.  According to his biographer, “St. Francis stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy.” 

 

 

The scene so moved the great monk that he could not bring himself to even utter the name of the Lord, instead referring to him repeatedly as the Babe of Bethlehem in his sermon that night – indeed, the whole village was moved to tears.

News of the spiritual outpouring reached the Vatican, and the tradition of the nativity scene was spread throughout Europe.

One Christmas our family went to spend the holidays with my father’s family (He had passed by then…) I remember “What Child is This?” started playing on the radio and Grandmother Barbour teared up and told me “That was your daddy’s favorite carol.”

On the way home that holiday I asked mother about it and she said Grandmother Barbour was right…it was daddy’s favorite. But it wasn’t until years later…that this ‘story behind the story’ was finally revealed to me by mother as she sat staring at a Christmas card she got from daddy during the war.

 

During WWII daddy was a radio operator with the 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group (United Army Air Forces)…responsible for flying low into enemy territory to take recon photos of the enemy’s location and amounts of weapon installations construed along the western front.

At the end of 1943 and start of 1944…Daddy was sent to a radio school to learn all the new secret codes that would be needed in preparation for D-Day…only then no one knew exactly what this event completely entailed.

The secret operating school was half hidden under ground- a type of bunker…outside of London, which was still ensuing bombings on a regular basis…The radio school was located in a safer… more rural area, consisting of small towns and farming communities.

Even though daddy had Christmas Eve off...there was no where to go…still he wandered outside as the sun was setting and found a place to sit on a high mound looking down into a farming town below. The church bells were ringing …and in the cold silence of that evening he could hear Christmas carols being sung…one of which was “What Child is This?” 

Daddy told mother he was very homesick and yearning for home and her (they were engaged.) As the congregational voices sang from far off he began to dream of their marriage and life together…having a child and a home surrounded by family and friends.

It would all come true…but daddy would live less than a decade after marrying mother. Still…today when I hear that carol…I know that myself and my siblings are that “child” he so longed to have and hold on that long ago night… with mother by his side. It makes the song ever so special to me until I will be reunited with my father… who no doubt continues to watch over me…his “watch always keeping.” 

So until tomorrow…

What child is this
Who lay to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping

“Today is my favorite day”  Winnie the Pooh

Anne and I wore our masks and ate socially distanced- spaced out in my large den…Thus we were able to pull off our annual Christmas luncheon and gift exchange yesterday…along with her brother-in-law’s yummy Christmas cookies! At last…a ‘normal’ Christmas tradition.

Tucked away in the my mini-forest that separates my property from my neighbors…a pot of poinsettias left out last year are starting to turn red…soon they will be breathtakingily beautiful…natural poinsettias are beyond pretty.

***To my delight I received a gift of Danish stories from Honey’s and my Danish friends… Frida and Kevin Larsen yesterday by my mail carrier…along with their two beautiful daughters! They also sent me more Danish paper hearts (Danish tree decoration) to put on my tree…the others were looking a little tattered…so excited to have new ones! Merry Christmas Larsens!!!! Love you!

About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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4 Responses to “What Child is This?”

  1. Rachel Edwards says:

    Beautiful story about your father and the song…a wondeful story to pass down from one generation to another. Seeing Anne and you reminded me of your bday pizza dinner out on your porch…times have changed but friendships endure. Please lift a prayer for Suzy…back at Duke today for another procedure…3rd time there…going on since March…and Amelia continues her therapy to regain the use of her right side…this has been a hard year for our Hedrck family. Glad I got your surcies to you before the increase in Covid hit.

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    • Becky Dingle says:

      That was a fun birthday…pizza always wins out! Praying hard for Suzy that they finally discover the catalyst that is causing all these mysterious health problems so they can, in turn, began procedures to restore her health. And the same for Amelia, as she works to regain the use of her right side…know that must be frustrating. Hope appears to be the greatest gift this year…so let’s keep spreading it to one and all…have a little surcie for you…if you find something on your porch in the next few days…it will be from me. Merry Christmas Gin-g!

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  2. Rachel Edwards says:

    Beautiful story about your father and the song…a wondeful story to pass down from one generation to another. Seeing Anne and you reminded me of your bday pizza dinner out on your porch…times have changed but friendships endure. Please lift a prayer for Suzy…back at Duke today for another procedure…3rd time there…going on since March…and Amelia continues her therapy to regain the use of her right side…this has been a hard year for our Hedrck family. Glad I got your surcies to you before the increase in Covid hit.

    Like

    • Rachel Edwards says:

      Yes you are right…faith …hope and love are so powerful. We are all praying …Suzy surgeon met with Clyde and her after the procedure and they are waiting on yet another biopsy. She concurred with the other doctors that it probably will be camcer and is getting her into an oncologist soon. However…she has had so many procedures…biopsies and extensive bloodwork and none of them have shown cancer before….but she is resigned with the news…think we all.just want a diagnosis. Thank you for thinking of us. Good news…got a Christmas card from Amelia that she signed…that is hope…

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