The True Meaning of Christmas With “We Three Kings” [25 Days of Holiday Songs]

Hello, and welcome to Day 16 of the “25 Days of Holiday Song”. Today’s post features Sarah, who runs her own blog These Good Old Days. Sarah writes in her guest post reflects on the idea of Christmas presents with a traditional American Christmas carol “We Three Kings”. It is a fantastic read, and you will enjoy it as well. 

We Three Kings of Orient Are

The season of giving is upon us – as an endless stream of TV commercials reminds me.  We are reminded to buy buy buy for everyone on our list – no relation is too remote, and no present is too expensive.  Sometimes it makes me want to give upon celebrating Christmas. However, even the first Christmas had gifts – expensive ones, too!  While the commercialism we experience this time of year may be over the top, there’s no way to untangle it from traditional celebrations of Christmas.

Why?  One word: Magi.  This word can send a shiver of awe and mystery up my spine.  We know very little about the wise men, except that they followed a star from the east to come visit the baby Jesus bringing three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  We don’t know when they arrived – it was unlikely they were there that first Christmas night, despite what most nativity scenes depict. We don’t even know how many of them came.  However, they have become an integral part of the Christmas tradition.

An Impactful Carol

What people know about the wise men, other than the very little stated in the Bible, has likely come from the popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.  The first verse, most commonly played, is as follows:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.”

Perhaps the greatest influence this song has had on Christmas is that it solidified in popular culture that there “were” three wise men.  Tradition has named them Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar. However, the Bible never actually mentions the number of wise men, only the number of gifts.  

Focus on the Gifts

And speaking of the gifts, the additional verses of the song go on to describe the gifts that the wise men brought to the manger, including why they were chosen.  The first gift, gold, is brought to honor a king whose reign will never end.  Frankincense is brought in order to give worship to a deity. Finally, myrrh is offered as a bitter perfume, to be used to wrap the body of Jesus after his crucifixion.  The song was originally written for a Christmas pageant, and one king was supposed to sing each verse. I wish more renditions of the song followed that format – I love the flair for the dramatic!

Rethink the Holiday Season

My favorite rendition of the song is by Mannheim Steamroller – consequently my favorite rendition of most Christmas songs is by them.  I love how they capture a sense of the mysterious near east and also something of the medieval, bringing together the story of the wise men with the time in history when it was most likely to be appreciated.  While the world is telling me to go out and buy more presents, while Santa and his elves are taking center stage, I prefer to think about those historical gift givers. Listening to the song, I imagine them slowly plodding through the desert on their camels, continually looking for direction into a star-speckled sky.  They are on a journey of faith, hope, and discovery.

As you rush about this holiday season, bogged down by the commercialism, keep the three kings in mind.  Look for ways to carry on their tradition by being generous to the poor and humble who need it most. Give with a cheerful heart.  And have a Merry Christmas!

35 thoughts on “The True Meaning of Christmas With “We Three Kings” [25 Days of Holiday Songs]

  1. Samantha Immer says:

    I loved all the thought in this post. It really is important to take a moment to break away from commercialism and remember to look outside of ourselves at the bigger picture. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this version of the song before and I really liked it- I’m going to have to checkout more of the Mannheim Steamroller holiday songs.

  2. Jessica Lyles, LMSW says:

    This was a great read! I plan to follow suit as the wise men by volunteering time at the soup kitchen in town and sponsoring a child for Christmas in foster care. I love how you break down the lyrics and provide easy access to the songs

  3. I’ve never really thought about the meaning behind the songs so it was really interesting to read, especially the bit about the bible not actually saying how many Magi were there. I love the idea of each king singing a serrated verse, that was how we did it at school!

  4. studyingwhilebroke says:

    This is a wonderful article and fits beautifully with the time of year. I completely agree that some people lose the true meaning of Christmas, wonderful article.

  5. chaddden2001 says:

    I love how much detail you put into this. I never learnt, properly, about this carol, so now I know it’s true origin, I can appreciate it better.

  6. Christmas has been overshadowed by the things that aren’t important due to commercialism and capitalism. This Christmas will be the first where my family, instead of unnecessary gifts, we book a trip where we all can spend time together! Thank you for this post!

  7. Telia Teanna says:

    I appreciate this post. It makes you think and I also got a new playlist to listen too. I’m tired of the same old Christmas songs.

  8. Eileen M Loya says:

    Isn’t this how Christmas should be celebrated? Remembering the infant Jesus and His humble birth, the act of giving (by the Three Wise Men), and about our faith. Thank you for writing this post!

  9. I think sometimes we get lost in the materialism of Christmas. It’s good to remind ourselves of the real meaning behind it, and embrace that more than gift giving!

  10. Madel Bais says:

    I’d like to comment with the quote from my favorite Author Ellen White,. –
    ” The twenty-fifth of December is supposed to be the day of the birth of Jesus Christ, and its observance has become customary and popular. But yet there is no certainty that we are keeping the veritable day of our Saviour’s birth. History gives us no certain assurance of this. The Bible does not give us the precise time. Had the Lord deemed this knowledge essential to our salvation, He would have spoken through His prophets and apostles, that we might know all about the matter. But the silence of the Scriptures upon this point evidences to us that it is hidden from us for the wisest purposes. “”In His wisdom, the Lord concealed the place where He buried Moses. God buried him, and God resurrected him and took him to heaven. This secrecy was to prevent idolatry. He against whom they rebelled while he was in active service, whom they provoked almost beyond human endurance, was almost worshiped as God after his separation from them by death. For the very same purpose He has concealed the precise day of Christ’s birth, that the day should not receive the honor that should be given to Christ as the Redeemer of the world—one to be received, to be trusted, to be relied on as He who could save to the uttermost all who come unto Him. The soul’s adoration should be given to Jesus as the Son of the infinite God” Ellen White. Adventist Home 477.2,3.

  11. That`s true, in my religion it does not mention the number of wise men, but in the Christmas songs/ Carols there is always 3 of them. Nowadays, Christmas is way too commercial. I tend to stay away from offering gifts, instead I choose for experience and finding time to spend with the dear ones.

  12. Emilio Marcos Sierra says:

    The true meaning of christmas is really important and I think many people in the modern day forget it. Thanks for sharing, we three kings is a good song choice

  13. Nice article by Sarah – I’m tired of the Christmas commercialism and gift exchanges – and look to embrace the true meaning of Christmas as well as sharing experiences rather than gifts. We do give and I really liked that part in the post where she talks about the value of the gift and how we should embrace giving to those in need.

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