William Chatterton Dix (kinda) — 1865
Part of the reason people both love and hate Christmas music is because of how ridiculously catchy it can be. From classics like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” to newer tunes like “Last Christmas,” a their survival depends on them staying in your head because they’re so brutally seasonal. They need to reawaken in your memory after months of absence, unless you’re a weirdo who listens to holiday music all year around, living in equal social stature to Zach Snyder fanboys and people who put ketchup on their steak.
When we talk about memorable traditional Christmas music, you can’t leave out “What Child is This?”. The melody is old school catchy; every note seems to just perfectly flow into the next with this special kind of logic reserved for the most intuitive music. You don’t have to take my word for it: In his book Musicophilia, English neurologist and music nerd Oliver Sacks found the melody to be one of the most “common and problematic” sticky songs out there.
It has also been getting stuck in people’s heads for centuries, even before “What Child is This?” was written. Like several other Christmas songs that have popped up over the years, “What Child is This?” had a long life before it reached its current form.
The lyrics are actually three stanzas of a poem called “The Manger Throne,” written in 1865 by English hymn writer, poet, and man with unfortunate last name William Chatterton Dix. Dix wrote a whole lot of hymns, many still used in churches today (no bangers, however, unless your favorite hymn is “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus”).
Around this time, Dix also fell terribly ill, and as a result became severely depressed, so for all you people out there who think no great art can come without suffering, add our boy Dix to your list right beside Elliott Smith and Donny Hathaway.
The complete piece was published in 1871, featured in Christmas Carols Old and New in a newly-edited form now performed to the melody of “Greensleeves,” a traditional English (noticing a pattern here?) folk tune. Though it’s unconfirmed, it’s likely English composer Sir John Stainer (one of the men behind editing the song for its publication) combined the two into the form we know it today.
So let’s talk about “Greensleeves.” Much like many folk tunes, the history of “Greensleeves” gets a little murky. The name was registered in September 1580 at the London Stationer’s Company by Richard Jones as “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.” Apparently this whole green sleeves thing really took off, because several other people registered it again several times over the same year. Eventually it found its way into the book A Handful of Pleasant Delights from 1584 as A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves.
There is also a legend that the tune was actually written by King Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn after she rejected his seduction attempts. This is pretty unlikely, however, because the melody is based on an Italian composition style, and unless Henry had some spies in Italy tasked with getting him the hottest new tracks for his wooing, he wouldn’t have heard that style of music as it didn’t make its way to England until after his death.
The choice of melody is a bit unconventional for a Christmas song. It’s written in a minor key and has a melancholy feel. It’s almost ominous, in an “O Holy Night” kind of way, but the cathartic resolution of the choruses and the lyrics describing the birth of Jesus and his visitors help lighten the tone.
You might be wondering “alright, this stuff about registering names in the 16th century is amazing and all, but what is the significance of the green sleeves?” You can interpret it a few ways, but one is a little juicier than the others. Perverts couldn’t stay off colours in Elizabethan England, and green carried with it certain connotations.
Having a “green gown” back in the day implied that you were particularly promiscuous, as your dress would have gone green from the grass stains one had earned from all the outdoor sex you’d been having. Unfortunately, it’s possible the Lady Green Sleeves described in the song was a prostitute.
Now lets jump ahead a few hundred years and across the ocean for a moment. You know who would have found that kind of thing interesting? Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, that’s who! Cohen ended his 1974 record New Skin for the Old Ceremony with the beautiful and brutal “Leaving Green Sleeves,” a tune that incorporates the famous “Greensleeves” melody along with lyrics describing a very similar relationship to the one in “Greensleeves.” In the original, the narrator pines for a promiscuous woman, resolved to do anything for her though she continues to resist him. That’s pretty much Cohen 101, and in his version, he offers a new perspective.
Where the chorus of the original is “Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves my heart of gold. Greensleeves was my heart of joy, and who but my lady Greensleeves,” Cohen’s writes “Green sleeves, you’re all alone. The leaves have fallen, the men have gone. Green sleeves, there’s no one home, not even the Lady Green Sleeves.” Cohen’s version changes the Lady Green Sleeves into the tragic subject, rather than the narrator being the object of torment.
The tune lives on, and the hymn is more popular now in the United States than in England. It’s an unforgettable, cherished melody, and it suits the Christmas feeling with its almost wintery, dark movements. So why did Stainer add the melody of a song about a prostitute to a carol about the birth of Jesus? As far as I can tell, either he didn’t realize, or simply didn’t care because the melody is excellent. Can’t really blame him either, because by taking a chance on a slightly racy song, Dix and Stainer made a classic carol sung in churches and played on the radio every year by thousands of people oblivious to its origin.