The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Friendly Beasts

Usually given as "Traditional English"
but see notes following.

Music: Orientis Partibus
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer
Meter: 7 7 7 7

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.

Notes

This song originally hails from a 12th century Latin song "Orientis Partibus" which first appeared in France and is usually attributed to Pierre de Corbeil, Bishop of Sens (d 1222) ("Office de la circoncision," "Lew manuscrit de l’office de la Circoncision de Notre-Dame-du-Puy," or "L’Office de Pierre de Corbeil," circa 1210). The Feast of the Circumcision is celebrated on January 1. The song is associated with the Feast of Fools.

The tune is said to have been part of the Fete de l’Ane (The Donkey’s Festival), which celebrated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and was a regular Christmas observance in Beauvais and Sens, France in the 13th century. During the mass, it was common for a donkey to be led or ridden into the church.

The words and tune were designed to give thanks for the ass on which Mary rode, and began: Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus (‘From the East the ass has come’). Each verse was sung, and finished with the chorus ‘Hail, Sir donkey, hail’. It was a solemn affair, but the tune became very popular in 17th and 18th century Germany.

Orientis partibus
adventavit asinus,
pulcher et fortissimus,
Sarcinis aptissimus.

Hez, Sir Asnes, hez!

Saltu vincit hinnulos
damas et capreolos
super dromedarios
velox madianeos

Hic in collibus Sychen
iam nutritus sub Ruben
transiit per Jordanem
saliit in Bethlehem

Dum trahit vehicula
multa cum sarcinula
illius mandibula
dura terit pabula

Cum aristis, hordeum
comedit et carduum
triticum ex palea
segregat in area

Amen dicas, asine
Iam satur ex gramine
amen, amen itera
aspernare vetera

An English Translation:

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

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

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

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.
Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Words by Susan Cooper from Nancy and John Langstaff, Christmas Revels Songbook (Boston: David R. Bodine,1985). Another English translation by Curtis Clark (© 1998) can be found at December Rains

The song emigrated to England in the 12th century, where it began to take on its modern character. It is for this reason that some sources will give the origin of this song as England.

Orientis Partibus was harmonized in 4/4 time for Church Hymn Tunes, ancient & modern (1853) by Richard Redhead (1820-1901) and given triple time by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) in English Hymnal (1906). Using the same tune, see also

  • Life Of Ages, Richly Poured (Hymn #405) and Father, Lead Me Day By Day (Hymn #437), The Methodist Hymnal, 1932
  • Conquering Kings Their Titles Take (Hymn 324, The Hymnal 1940)
  • Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise (Hymn 213, The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941)
  • Savior, Teach Me, Day by Day (Hymn 162, The Book of Hymns, 1964)
  • Christ The Lord Is Risen Today (Hymn 130, Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978)
  • Soldiers, Who Are Christ's Below (Hymn 450, The New English Hymnal, 1986)

Robert Davis (1881-1950) apparently wrote the words that we normally associate with this tune in the 1920s. The first publication was in 1934, but the song is probably older. Unfortunately, almost nothing of known of Mr. Davis.

It is also known as "The Song of the Ass," The Donkey Carol," "The Animal Carol" and "The Gift of the Animals."

Sources:

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