Cecil Frances Alexander published her popular Hymns for Little Children (text only, no music) in 1848. She wrote these hymns to explain various parts of Christian doctrine, and today's hymn was to illustrate a portion of the Apostles' Creed (...conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary...)
Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for a bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little child.
You came down to earth from heaven,
As the living God of all,
And your shelter was a stable,
And your cradle was a stall;
You, with all the meek and lowly,
Lived on earth, our Savior holy.
For you are our lifelong pattern,
Day by day like us you grew;
You were little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us you knew.
And you feel for all our sadness,
And you share in all our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see you,
Through your own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Now is Christ in heaven above;
And you lead your children on
To the place where you have gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see you; but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high;
Where like stars your children crowned,
Shall with joy your courts surround.
Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848; alt.
Tune: IRBY (126.96.36.199.7.7.)
Henry J. Gauntlett, 1849
Composer Gauntlett wrote this tune specifically for Mrs. Alexander's text, and it remains his most well-known. There have been a few other unsuccessful attempts at writing a new tune, such as Katie Smith's in 1876, but none have lasted.
Ever since 1919, this hymn has been used as the opening processional for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Oxford University (broadcast around the world since 1928).