The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 12

Over the last few days we’ve been so preoccupied with Christmas food that we’ve lost sight of the magical side of Christmas, so today’s literary fact returns us to the rarefied heights of the classic Christmas carol. We’ll stick with the Victorians, though, since so much of our modern Christmas owes something to them.

Carols might not usually be described as ‘literature’, but then they have lyrics which are often highly poetic, and – as we will see tomorrow – at least one famous Christmas carol was written by a leading Victorian poet.

Mrs AlexanderToday’s fact concerns the words to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. The lyrics to this classic carol were written by the same person who wrote the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Her name was Mrs Cecil Alexander, and her version of ‘All Things Bright’ is but one of several (although it is the most famous). However, although she’s known in quite a few circles as the Victorian writer of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, she’s less celebrated for her role in Christmas-carol-writing.

Alexander was born Miss Cecil Humphreys in Dublin in 1818, and married the Anglican clergyman William Alexander in 1850, two years after the publication of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

The carol was first published in 1848 in a hymnbook named Hymns for Little Children and was set to music by Henry John Gauntlett a year later. The carol has traditionally been the first carol sung in the annual ‘Carol’s from King’s’ service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge – for the last 95 years it has opened the service.

Image: Photograph of Cecil F. H. Alexander, author unknown, public domain.

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