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- 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