We Three Kings Of Orient Are

Album: Christmas Carols (1857)
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Songfacts®:

  • "We Three Kings of Orient Are" was written in 1857 by Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr. An instructor of church music at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York City, Hopkins composed the carol as part of an elaborate nativity drama he'd created for the seminary.
  • "We Three Kings" centers on the Magi, or Three Wise Men, who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem sometime after his Nativity, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2. The second, third and fourth verses describe the symbolic nature of each of their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented to the Son of God.

    The chorus proclaims how a star guided the Magi on their long journey westwards. It invites the caroller to join them in following its light - "guide us to thy perfect light."

    The last verse looks forward to Christ's death and resurrection when the "King and God" sacrifices Himself on the Cross.
  • At first, "We Three Kings" was sung just within Hopkins' circle of family and friends. As it proved popular with them, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in his 1863 compilation Carols, Hymns, and Songs under the title "Three Kings of Orient." The collection was to be the first of several that established Hopkins as a leading composer of hymns in the Episcopal church.
  • "We Three Kings" became popular in England and was included in the 1871 prestigious Christmas Carols New and Old edited by Henry Bramley and John Stainer. It was the only American carol included in the influential collection.
  • Hopkins saw the dramatic possibilities of the carol. At the bottom of the first page, he wrote:

    "Each of verses, 2, 3, and 4, is sung as a solo (Kings Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar) to the music of Gaspard's part to the 1st and 5th verses, the accompaniment and chorus being the same throughout. Only verses 1 and 5 are sung as a trio. Men's voices are best for the parts of the Three Kings, but the music is set in the G clef for the accommodation of children."
  • The Feast of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of the Christ child to the Gentiles when the Magi visited Jesus by following a star. Christians celebrate the event 12 days after Christmas on January 6. "We Three Kings" was intended as an Epiphany carol, meaning it's technically meant to be sung towards the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
  • So, who were the "Three Kings"? The Gospel of Matthew recounts some wise men coming from the East to worship Jesus when He was born; the writer gives no details regarding their names or the number that were present. The Greek historian Herodotus described them as a tribe of the Medes who had a priestly function in the Persian Empire. The Old Testament prophet Daniel confirms this in the book of Daniel (2 v48) and adds that they are a class of "wise men" who practice astrology and oracles.

    That there were three wise men is inferred from their three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In early Christianity there was no precise number and in the Roman catacombs their numbers ranged from three to 12.

    The wise men did not become royalty until a millennium or so after Christ's death, when a legend arose that referred to them as kings.
  • The Beach Boys recorded "We Three Kings of Orient Are" for their 1964 The Beach Boys' Christmas Album and Kirk Franklin did a rendition for The Star soundtrack. Other artists who have recorded versions of the carol include Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton and Sufjan Stevens.

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