Anonymous. That sums up the lyricist and composer of the Christmas carol Angels We Have Heard on High. As much as I love the carol, especially listening to people pronounce “in excelsis deo” in different ways, I was about to pass on learning the story behind the song. What kind of story could there be behind an anonymous song anyway? Well, there is one, and even though it’s different, it is interesting.
Angels We Have Heard On High is actually the English translation of Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes. The lyrics of the original French song tell the story of the birth of Jesus and an angel choir that shared the good news of His birth with the shepherds who were watching o’er their flocks by night.
The biblical shepherds from the biblical account of Jesus’ birth must have struck a chord with the Medieval shepherds of southern France. According to legend, the shepherds in the hills of southern France had a Christmas Eve custom of calling out to one another by singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” The tune they sang as they called out was from a Medieval Latin chorale, but it is believed to have adapted into the chorus of the Angels We Have Heard On High carol we still sing today.
The French of that southern region also have a tradition known as the creche where handmade nativity scenes are placed in homes, town squares, parks, and other public areas. The nativity characters are clay figures called santons. Often, families within communities work diligently to craft the nativity scene figures. In some areas, villagers themselves even dress as shepherds, forming a procession to the church building where the nativity scenes are assembled, the characters are placed, and the people sing Christmas carols, always being careful to include the French favorite Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes or Angels We Have Heard On High.
Not too shabby for an anonymous carol.
Click here to hear a great version of Angels We Have Heard On High by Pentatonix.
*Image courtesy of Gritte and Unsplash
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