We’ve known it for a long time: good tidings come in threes
Reading the words of the transcendent Christmas carol “We Three Kings”, it’s in the form of a classic ballad. It was written and composed by clergyman John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857, during an era when classic Epiphany hymns were the current fashion. He actually wrote it particularly for his young nephews and nieces’ Christmas stage program in New York. Since the Epiphany is the last day of Christmas, a time for remembering the 3 magi, singing of classic Epiphany hymns perfectly fit readings from the lectionary (Matthew 2:1-2 -” The wise men looked for the infant king, Herod summoned them. They found the place that the star was pointing to and presented their gifts, but they did not report back to Herod.”)
The song was written by Hopkins in that storytelling style that children of all ages love; The refrain reveres the West-leading bright star that pointed the way to the newborn King, Jesus. And the magi followed the star bringing gifts for the newborn: Gold to signify His kingship, frankincense to denote His being God, and myrrh to denote his being a mortal. The magi offered praise upon finding Jesus in the humble stable with Mary and Joseph. At the very heart of it “We Three Kings” enjoins all of his believers to worship him. Whether the song is performed by a trio of men as Gaspar, Melchor, and Balthazar or a chorus of children, it is delightful to hear during the holidays. The sheet music was perfectly created for Christmas pageants--it’s harmonically-rich, dramatic, and complements the actors of the play.
It’s fun to note that Hopkins set his poetry on the journey of the magi to triple rhythm. There’s an arrangement out there that are set to the Andantino tempo, which should give the feeling of a slow-paced walk, or how the magi’s trip to Bethlehem took a long time. It was immortalized in Hopkins’ Carols, Hymns and Songs in 1863.