For those who celebrate Christmas, I hope the recent festive season was a time of joy, generosity and happiness. Across the globe each year families are brought together, churches roll out increasingly elaborate nativity displays, and carols are sung.
But it isn’t all eggnog and tinsel. For years I had been perplexed by a puzzle in a popular Christmas carol. With the festive season now fully over, I have only one question, and perhaps it is one you can help me with?
It concerns one specific carol, and an egregious error that appears to have been handwaved away for almost 200 years.
The specific carol which has confused me for years is “Once in Royal David’s City” and it would seem to be best if we start with a little background. It is in the context that we find the problem.
The lyrics to the first verse of this carol run as follows:
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed
The poem was written in 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander, a fames hymnwriter who would also pen “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and it fits neatly into the early-Victorian penchant for romantic sweetness. For some however, the other references may not be so familiar.
David is of course a key legendary figure from the Old Testament of the Bible. Father of Solomon (he of the lost mines) and great king of the Jews, David slew the Philistine giant Goliath and ascended to the throne as a war leader sometime around 1,000 BC.
David, alongside Moses, is perhaps the Old Testament figure who casts the longest shadow. Early Christians associated their Messiah most closely with David, and Jesus is confirmed as a descendant of David in two of the four canonical gospels. Whether true or not, it was clear that the Christians wanted an impeccable pedigree for Christ, and none is better than the Line of David.
According to Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, David ruled Jerusalem as the third king of a United Israel. His “Royal” city is unquestionably Jerusalem, where we are told “a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed”.
However, this is patently not the case. Jesus was famously born not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem, a small village some 6 miles (10 km) to the south and far outside the walls of the Holy City where he would die.
How do we explain this disparity? Did Alexander skip accuracy for cadence in her verse? People have been judged heretics and burned alive for far less, although thankfully less so by the Victorian era.
Perhaps we are supposed to see Bethlehem as an outlying territory of Jerusalem? It would seem odd to do so, as the two places are clearly depicted as separate when mentioned in the Bible, and “Once near royal David’s city”, while arguably less neat as poetry, has the advantage of truth.
Perhaps it is Jerusalem, but not Jesus in the carol? For those who look to suggest that the problem should be approached from the other side, and that many other mothers were giving birth that Christmas, I would ask that you look no further than the next two lines of the verse:
Mary was that mother mild
Jesus Christ the little child
So that’s that theory ruined, then.
A Puzzle for You?
This is, unfortunately, a puzzle without answer, or at least one that I can find. Perhaps I have overconcerned myself with a passing detail in an old hymn, but it seems an odd error at the time where theology was arguably at its height in Britain. It remains as a mote to trouble the reader’s eye.
Perhaps you can find the answer which has eluded me, and explain why a 200 year old carol seems insistent that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
Top Image: The sheet music for “Once in Royal David’s City”. Source: Cecil Frances Alexander; Henry John Gauntlett / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green