This has been a year of big transitions for my two sons. My oldest started his freshman year in high school and will soon be learning to drive; my youngest headed for the first time to middle school. Along with the academic challenges, each adventure has brought with it new social opportunities as well. For my youngest son, one of those has been school choir.
He was a little nervous to take this plunge but has had an absolute blast. He’s had the opportunity to perform the National Anthem at Busch Stadium before a Cardinals game, has gained a ton of confidence, and has been singing Christmas songs since the end of August.
I’m thrilled for him. I do love a good Christmas song, especially now that ‘tis the season. But I gotta say, as much as I am looking forward to the big winter concert coming up next week, I have listened to all the holiday tunes with less gusto this December than I usually might. My Christmas carol tolerance has been a little tested. Musically speaking, it’s been a long four months here in the Angleton household.
But humanity has been singing songs of this most jolly of holidays for a lot longer than that. The first Christmas hymns can be traced to the third century, probably around the same time St. Nicholas allegedly slapped a heretic silly.
Of course those first songs are no longer topping the charts. The earliest one that is still sung regularly today comes from 12th century France and is known now as “The Friendly Beasts.” It tells the charming tale of the animals in the stable on the night of Christ’s birth and consists of their first-hand witness accounts, including such brilliant lines as, “’I said the cow,’ all white and red, ‘I gave Him my manger for a bed.’”
If that doesn’t impress you, you’re clearly not picturing it as performed by a children’s choir in animal costumes. Awww.
And if you are not as well-versed in Christmas melodies as I am, then you might take issue with my claim that it’s sung regularly, but just consider that it was easily one of the most ridiculous hymns sung every Christmas season in the midwestern church my family attended when I was young. Then when I lived on the West Coast a few years ago we attended a church of a different denomination and they also sang “The Friendly Beasts” every year, in full adorable children’s choir fashion.
That’s a pretty small sampling, I realize, but I’m sticking to my claim. Also, Garth Brooks sang a version of it in 1992, which now that I see that in print, doesn’t seem all that more impressive than the song appearing in the 12th century. Man, I’m getting old. Did I mention that I have a son who is about to start learning to drive?
As you might imagine, the original version of the song was not in English, though I hardly think that matters as few barnyard animals speak it anyway. The current English lyrics were set to the original Old French tune in the 1920s by a man named Robert Davis. The good old-fashioned Christmas hymn has been variously known as “The Gift of the Animals,” “The Animal Carol,” “The Donkey Carol,” and “The Song of the Ass.” That last one has been discarded for causing too many giggles among the children in the choir.
In my family we always called the song “’I, Said the Cow.’” And honestly, despite its age, and probably owing to the fact that it’s not on the list of selections for the upcoming middle school choir concert, it might be the only Christmas song I’m not completely sick of yet.