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.

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Making Sense of Sufjan

Silver and GoldWhen I heard that Sufjan Stevens had a new Christmas album, the obvious question was “Why?”  It was just 2008 when he put out Songs for Christmas, a collection of 42 songs.  And ok, sure, Songs for Christmas was put together over a few years, but still, who does two Christmas albums?  And who would do two so close together?  Well, Silver and Gold has a whopping 58 tracks, some serious, some a little quirky, and some entirely bizarre.  There are traditional Christmas carols, some Advent hymns, at least one Lenten hymn, some playful electro-folk, and a bit of plain noise.

As I began listening to Silver and Gold, I had a few more questions.  First, while I love the hymn Ah Holy Jesus, it isn’t a Christmas song at all.  Rather, it’s about the death of Christ.  What was it doing on this Christmas album, and in three versions at that?  Also, there are a lot of Advent themes– “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates” and “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee” are traditional Advent hymns.  It even seems that Sufjan has written at least two specifically Advent-aimed songs, “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way” and “Justice Delivers Its Death.”  For those who are not familiar with the distinction between Advent and Christmas, Advent is the penitential season in the Church calendar just prior to Christmas.  Rather than being jolly, it stresses the judgment associated with Christ’s coming, both his first and second coming.  And so Advent songs are often about the end of the world, the final judgment, and Jesus returning cosmic order and righteousness to the universe.  What’s striking is that Advent and its music are typically somber, a stark contrast to what most people think of as “Christmas music.”  Obviously Sufjan is doing all this on purpose, and so the question is, “What’s he up to?” Continue reading