Over the years, I’ve heard hundreds of Christmas carols and songs. I’ve sung in dozens of Christmas choirs and even directed multiple Christmas musicals. To top things off, last year I started blogging about the origins of Christmas Carols. I asked my social media friends to submit their favorite Christmas carols for me to research. When numerous people submitted The Friendly Beasts, I thought it was a joke because I was totally unfamiliar with the song. Fans of Garth Brooks, Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, and Harry Belafonte were not impressed.
The Friendly Beasts originated in 12th century France, probably by Pierre de Corbeil who was the Bishop of Sens. The melody of the donkey portion was originally sung during the Fete de l’Ane or Festival of the Donkey. Instead of focusing on the birth of Jesus, this festival actually focused on the holy family’s flight to Egypt. During the Catholic mass for this festival, a donkey was often ridden or led into the church building.
Over the years, the festival shifted from the Holy family’s flight into Egypt to Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. As time passed, The Friendly Beasts featured verses highlighting the cow, the sheep, the doves, and the camel. As Jesus is born, each of the “friendly beasts” experience a magical event where they are each able to sing about the gifts they are offering to Jesus:
The donkey gave transportation for Mary to Bethlehem
The cow gave its manger as a place for Jesus to sleep
The sheep gave their wool for a warm coat.
The doves coo the baby Jesus to sleep.
The camel carried the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus
Some connect this song to old beliefs that all animals have the gift of speech at midnight on Christmas Eve. One comment I read said, “If God gave Balaam’s donkey the ability to speak (Numbers 22), why wouldn’t he do the same to the animals of the Nativity? Exploring this would be a post (if not a research paper) of its own. I understand that the story is more legendary than biblical. But, it’s still a sweet notion to think that the animals in the stable were able to participate in honoring Jesus at his birth.
It also brings to mind Psalm 148:7-13 – Praise the Lord from the earth, you creatures of the ocean depths, fire and hail, snow and clouds, wind and weather that obey Him, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all livestock, small scurrying animals and birds, kings of the earth and all people, rulers and judges of the earth, young men and young women, old men and children. Let them all praise the name of the Lord. For His name is very great; His glory towers over the earth and heaven!”
Click here to hear The Friendly Beasts by Garth Brooks and friends
*Image courtesy of Martin Castro