The carol was composed by American clergyman and hymnodist, John Henry Hopkins Jr. and appeared in his Carols, Hymns and Songs collection in 1872. Its original use was for an elaborate Nativity drama Hopkins was staging. It’s intended as an Epiphany carol, meaning it’s technically meant to be sung towards the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Epiphany is 6 January in 2023). The carol tells the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection – and the melody alternates between regal, minor-sounding Aeolian mode verses, in which the Three Wise Men announce what gifts they’re presenting to the son of God, and a major chorus joyfully proclaiming the beauty of the star guiding their way to the manger1.
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 light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.
3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies.