The Friendly Beasts- A Brief History of a Delightful Carol

beastsI have to admit that the first time I ever heard “The Friendly Beasts” was on Sufjan Stevens’s Songs for Christmas. I assumed that he was simply having fun with a children’s song. Still, the song was a great hit, and it has become a sort of classic fixture since then. But to my surprise, “The Friendly Beasts” dates back at least to the 12th century and has a rich history. It reflects an odd but intriguing liturgical practice, the details of which can be found here and here. Equally as impressive and unexpected is the fact that the famous composers Richard Redhead and Ralph Vaughan Williams had a hand in the creation of the modern tune.

The tune name gives us the best clue to this carol’s history. Orientis Partibus reflects the original first line which said, “From the East the donkey came.” The original chorus was then, “Hail, Sir Donkey, Hail!” This strange custom reflects the medieval Feast of the Ass, a mostly French celebration where the donkey who carried the Holy Family to Egypt was praised. From here, the tradition developed further, with the donkey taking on a first-person speech. As this carol moved into England, it was changed more radically, the lyrics were re-written, and the focus was moved to the Nativity rather than the flight into Egypt. The current version of the song has each of the animals singing a verse about their contribution to Jesus’ birth scene.

Here are the recreated original lyrics:

From the East the donkey came,
Stout and strong as twenty men;
Ears like wings and eyes like flame,
Striding into Bethlehem.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Faster than the deer he leapt,
With his burden on his back;
Though all other creatures slept,
Still the ass kept on his track.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Still he draws his heavy load,
Fed on barley and rough hay;
Pulling on along the road –
Donkey, pull our sins away!
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;
All rejoice who see him pass;
Mirth inhabit young and old
On this feast day of the ass.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

And here are the modern ones:

1. Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

2. “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

3. “I,” said the cow all white and red
“I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”
“I,” said the cow all white and red.

4. “I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

5. “I,” said the dove from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I.”
“I,” said the dove from the rafters high.

6. Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

7. “I,” was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Here We Come A-wassailing

Wassail2The Christmas season concludes with Twelfth Night.  Associated with merrymaking and even mischief, Twelfth Night serves as a bridge between Christmas and Epiphany.  It seems appropriate then to finish up our survey of Christmas Carols with a wassailing song.  Wassailing was a practice that, in some ways, goes back to pre-Christian Europe, but took on most of its popularity in the middle ages.  It involved door-to-door caroling and, of course, the drinking of wassail.  “Wassail” is actually an expression, of Anglo-Saxon and possibly older Norse origins, which means “be hale” or “be healthy.”  The name was transferred to the drink, typically a hot mulled cider, over the years as people would offer “Wassail” as a toast.  And so the tradition of wassailing was that of door-to-door caroling with the drinking of wassail and the wishing of God’s blessing upon the residents of the house, and it was typically done on Twelfth Night.

Of course, wassailing also took on some other associations.   Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

rosa“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” is a German hymn first printed in 1582.  Written anonymously under the title “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” this song originally had about 19 stanzas.  As we’ve seen, those Germans really love their long songs.  In 1599 they even bumped it up to 23, but these days it’s usually trimmed down to 5 or 6.  A lot of hands have been involved in the transmission and translation of the words to the hymn.  In the 19th cent., Theodore Baker gave us the first two stanzas in English, translating from the German original.  Friedrich Layritz wrote two more stanzas around the same time, and these have been translated by Harriett R. Spaeth.  John C Mattes added another stanza in 1914.  Catherine Winkworth even got involved by translating a variant version of the hymn.  There were so many different options because of all those earlier stanzas, quite a bit of source material I’d say, and because of the fact that this hymn has been theologically redacted in a big way.  Most of us assume the “Rose” is Jesus.  That’s how our current English versions present it, and I bet you’ve never thought a thing about it.  But that’s actually not what the original meant.  You see, the Rose used to be Mary! Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- What Child is This?

206px-Greensleeves-rossetti-modHere we have a Christmas song whose original tune might still be more famous than the new seasonal lyrics.  “What Child is This?” is set to the old Renaissance love song “Greensleeves.”  A series of folks songs and ballads about “the Lady Greensleeves” were written in England between 1580-1584.  Often played on the lute, “Greensleeves” is a classic Renaissance “lover’s lament,” where the singer cries over lost love and longs for the day that he might win back his lady.  I’m sure that this song was considered public domain and freely modified over the years.  At one point it had 18 verses, each followed by the chorus.  It’s still fairly common to hear this tune with no intended relation to the Christmas carol, and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about using this one in worship services.  Still, it’s awfully pretty. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

347px-Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Adoration_of_the_Lamb_2Today we have a combination of ancient and modern.  The words to “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” were written around the 4th cent., the tune was composed in the 17th cent., but the combination of both as we know it today was not until 1906.  Ralph Vaughan Williams gets the credit for the final product, and while he is another one of those names whose association always signals something great, in this case he was working with truly excellent resources.  The tune “Picardy” comes from a popular French folk song, and the lyrics date back all the way to the Divine Liturgy of St. James.

That liturgy is still sung by certain Christian churches in the East, and a few of them even maintain that it dates all the way back to James the brother of Christ, the bishop of the church in Jerusalem.  This would make it of apostolic origin, but their claim seems overreaching.  One obvious objection is the language.  You’ll find the beautiful line, “the triune light of the Godhead, which is unity subsisting in trinity, divided, yet indivisible: for the Trinity is the one God Almighty,” which also indicates the Nicene character of the theology.  While pre-Nicene Christians shared the substance of the theology, much of this terminology did not actually exist prior to the 3rd cent.  The anaphora (the consecration of the bread and wine) also shows historical development from the catechisms of Cyril of Jerusalem and older Egyptian prayers.  So most scholars agree that this indicates a 4th cent. origin.  Still, that’s not too shabby.  How old is your liturgy? Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- O Come, All Ye Faithful

Dieric_Bouts_004 “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was also originally a Roman Catholic hymn, and it has a bit of a bumpy history.  Originally written in Latin, but by an Englishman, in 1743, a time when all but the Roman Catholics would have been writing in English, folks were not exactly sure who the author was.  At that time it was considered proper to leave liturgical pieces anonymous, since the song wasn’t really meant to be “his” but rather the church’s.  Also, since it was in Latin, there was no reason to suspect that it was an Englishman who wrote it.  The French began to claim that it was theirs.  Some Irish said that they heard it first.  Even in England, the tune picked up the name “The Portuguese Hymn” because it was played in the Portuguese chapel in England.  This lead people to think that maybe it had been written by someone from Portugal, perhaps even the king!  You can read all about the history here, but what seems to be proven (though wikipedia says that “it has been concluded that… probably…”, so take this “probable conclusion” how you will) is that it was written by the English Roman Catholic, John Francis Wade.  Wade had spent some time in exile in France, and so the French may well have heard the tune there.  He was also in Ireland for a while, so there’s the Irish’s claim.  Wade wrote the tune in Latin, and so it was called Adeste Fideles, in 1743.  In fact, the song is known by its Latin title in most all official discussions, particularly because this allows it to be shared in the multiple countries that all sing it. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Angels We Have Heard on High

341px-Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_miniatureNow we’re to the song that those herald angels actually sung.  Well, ok, they may not have actually “sung” in Luke 2, but they might as well have.  “Angels We Have Heard on High,” while in Latin, contains the correct words of “Glory to God in the highest.”   Though it existed earlier in France (no one seems to be quite sure when it was written), it made its way into English hymnody through the 1862 translation by James Chadwick.  What’s interesting about this is that it is a Roman Catholic origin.  Chadwick was an Irish immigrant to England who became Bishop of Newcastle.  He took a popular French carol, changing it a little (a stanza seems to have been left out, but I’m not sure when or how that occurred), and made it into the song we love today.  The tune, however, is Protestant, making this song a truly ecumenical creation.  Edward S. Barnes was an organist who made his way from fancy Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in New York and Philadelphia to finally settling at 1st Pres. in Santa Monica, CA.  He put “Angels” to the famous tune “Gloria” in 1937, giving us that great chorus. Continue reading

Twelve Days of Christmas Carols- Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

There’s quite the story behind “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  Originally written by Charles Wesley, this hymn was meant to be made up of ten stanzas, each with four lines.  Even more, it was originally intended to be sung to “Easter Hymn” (that’s the tune for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”).  Just think of how long that would be, ten stanzas and four alleluias in each one!  To make it even more complicated, the famous opening lines (and thus the title!) used to be totally different.  Wesley wrote, “Hark, how all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of kings.’”  George Whitefield, another famous Methodist and associate of the Wesleys, didn’t like those words, presumably because people had already forgotten what “welkin” meant, and so he changed them to what we have today.  Wesley was furious with this for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the fact that “the Herald Angels” did not, in fact, sing “glory to the newborn king.”  In fact, they didn’t even sing at all! Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Joy to the World

watts-santaToday we’re going to cover what is perhaps the most popular carol, “Joy to the World.”  But did you know that it actually isn’t a Christmas carol at all?  Written by Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” originally appeared in his 1719 The Psalms of David, and it was Watts’s unique take on Psalm 98.  The full title of Watts’s song book is The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship, which sounds like a noble effort, but in reality most of the words bear only a slight resemblance to the Biblical text.  Watts began his project in a time when many Puritans only allowed for the use of the Psalms in worship music (no other songs of any kind), and his title makes it clear that the goal was to “Christianize” the psalms, making the person of the Savior explicit.  In retrospect, Watts actually managed to supplant the use of Psalms in worship altogether, as most of his hymns are paraphrases at best and their popularity cleared the way for even less-textually based worship songs in the future.  As an extended result, there aren’t many psalm-singing churches left at all, not even among the Presbyterians.  But that is another conversation for a less happy occasion.  Today we’ll stick to the fun stuff. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Good Christian Men Rejoice

In dulci jubiloSpeaking of John Mason Neale, my favorite carol to sing is his “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”  As we said, Neale was predominately a translator, though he had no problem employing an aggresive sort of “dynamic equivalent” approach that often fell into paraphrase.  Such is the case with this song.  The original was a mash-up of German and Latin titled “In Dulci Jubilo,” written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse in 1328.  You can read about his story here, but my favorite part is that he received a heavenly vision instructing him to compose a song about the baby Jesus.  He constructed a masterpiece.  The tune is also very old, dating back at least to 1400, which makes it one of the most ancient of all hymns still in currency today, Christmas carols or otherwise.  Of course, most of us change it up considerably, but it’s still an impressive tradition. Continue reading