History of Hymns: French carol highlights animals in nativity story

“The Friendly Beasts”
French Carol
UM Hymnal
, No. 227

Jesus, our brother, strong and good,
was humbly born in a stable rude,
and the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, strong and good.

“The Friendly Beasts” probably originated in 12th-century France. Sometimes known as “The Song of the Ass,” “The Donkey Carol” or “The Gift of the Animals,” this song is distinctive in that each of the animals sings to the newborn Christ child in the first person, offering a gift to comfort him.

Stanza one sets the scene of a “stable rude” with the baby surrounded by “friendly beasts.” Our relationship to the child is familial, one of a “brother, strong and good.” Though a humble setting, it is a warm and inviting one.

Each of the next four stanzas is taken by one of the “friendly beasts” who offers Jesus a gift:

The donkey offers transportation to Bethlehem for Jesus’ mother.

The cow gives its manger (feeding trough) as a place to rest.

The sheep provides wool for a warm coat on Christmas.

The dove and its mate coo the baby Jesus to sleep.

The final stanza summarizes that “all the beasts, by some good spell,” were pleased to offer a gift to Emmanuel. The “good spell” has a sense of a magical event in which even the animals were engaged in the mystery.

Drawing upon an oral tradition found in some folk songs, the final line of each stanza repeats the first line exactly. This technique would allow all gathered to join in the song without any printed music and, as a result, enter into the story singing only the last line.

The carol’s simple and seemingly transparent text belies a rich history. The tune ORIENTIS PARTIBUS has been attributed to Pierre de Corbeil, Bishop of Sens (d. 1222). It was sung during the Feast of Circumcision on Jan. 1. By the 13th century the melody was sung during the Fete de l’Ane (Festival of the Ass or Donkey), the focus of which was the flight into Egypt by the holy family. During the mass for this festival, a donkey was often led or ridden into the church.

Music historian Archibald Jacob describes the scene:

“A young woman holding a child in her arms and seated upon an ass was led in procession through the streets of the town and, finally, into the principal church where Mass was celebrated while the ass with its burden stood beside the high altar. During the service a hymn written in a mixture of medieval Latin and old French was sung, of which the first lines were ‘Orientis partibus adventavit asinus,’ to which a form of the present melody was sung.”

While this spectacle might seem strange to us, perhaps even humorous, it was a solemn celebration in its day. The original poem sets the context:

Orientis partibus
adventavit asinus,
pulcher et fortissumus. . . .

From the east
the ass has come,
fair and strong. . . .

The refrain after each stanza states “Hez, Sir Asnes, hez!” (“Hail, Sir Donkey, hail!”).

At some point over the centuries the scene shifted from the flight into Egypt to the journey to Bethlehem. Robert Davis (1881-1950) is attributed with writing the English words we now sing, probably in the 1920s, though they were first published in 1934. Many artists have recorded the song including Peter, Paul & Mary, Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks on his 1992 platinum-selling album, Beyond the Seasons.

A number of children’s books illustrate the song, most notably one by Tomie dePaola, a beautifully illustrated book that mistakenly states that it is “an old English Christmas Carol.”

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary’s sacred music program.

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