Christmas pageants, Study Leave

Hail, Sir Donkey, Hail!

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.


“The Friendly Beasts” is what I call an old-fashioned favorite. I’ve known it since I was a little girl, I think because I heard it on a Burl Ives recording. (I hear it in his voice.) The Father of My Children grew up with the Harry Belafonte version. So naturally I wanted my children to know it, and it’s part of our family Christmas lore. A few years ago my friend RevFun and I used it in a joint Christmas Eve service and added a verse about a tri-colored dog, with tri-colored Molly present for the singing. 


During last year’s Christmas pageant at NYCC, I particularly admired a stick-horse donkey with a very handsome head “ridden” by Mary. It occurred to me that we might feature a donkey in this year’s pageant, and that eventually led me to the idea of writing a pageant based on “The Friendly Beasts.” Since writing the pageant is Task 1 of my Study Leave, I spent some time this morning looking for additional verses. The original has donkey, sheep, cow and dove, and as mentioned above I have one for a dog. On the Internet I also found a camel verse. 


My temporary office-mate suggests we might compose parody verses about a cat. Please feel free to offer suggestions in the comments. 


But more seriously, I also read the origin of the carol and wanted to share it with you below. Please read on!

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!


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Stick with me here. I realize I’m posting in tongues, but an interpretation will come later.


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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


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(Seriously, read that one, too. Hilariously solemn.)


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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).

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All this history of the carol comes from the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas. You gotta love it, right?

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