This is part 18 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
There is a legend that goes with “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It would seem that, as the legend goes, the carol originated by French shepherds watching over sheep in the countryside. These shepherds identified with the shepherds in the Luke 2 story and came up with the hymn. Through oral tradition these shepherds passed the carol from one generation to the next. They would gather around campfires during the Christmas season, their carol making its way across fields and valleys to tell other shepherds they were not alone and to celebrate the birth of the Christ.
It’s a nice story but the legend probably isn’t true. Elements are true. The carol, as first appearing in a hymnal was French. The carol is based on Luke 2. The hymn was probably used to teach the Church through oral tradition, perhaps even around campfires. Beyond that, there is little evidence to prove this.
Maybe more than any other carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High”is truly anonymous in it’s origins. The lyrics of the carol suggest that the lyricist was someone with a strong knowledge of Scripture and a gift for being able to turn Scripture into musically workable verse. This would seem to point to a priest or a monk.
The song first appeared in a French hymnal in 1855. This has given credence to the idea that the carol is French in origin. While it may be that some of the hymn did originate in France, it has its roots to a time before Christianity had gained a foothold in western Europe. There is one school of thought that suggests at least the chorus of the hymn could predate Christianity’s acceptance by the Roman Empire. Some have even suggested that it is possible that the person who wrote that part of the carol could possibly have even known Jesus! I am not trying to suggest that such is true, only that some have suggested it as a possibility.
“Gloria in Excelsis Deo,”translated into English means, “Glory to God in the highest.” This is a phrase that played an important role in early Church worship dating back the the second century.
During that period, Pope Telesphorus ordered, that on the day the Church celebrated the Lord’s birth, all churches would have special evening services (perhaps the origins of Midnight Mass). After the reading of Scripture and the saying of specific prayers, the congregation was to sing the words, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Monks then carried the Pope’s decree throughout the land. By the third century it was the practice of almost every congregation.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” fits well with the French tradition of the crèche. Handmade nativity scenes are found in homes, around towns and even in the country side. Excellent craftsmanship is given to these scenes, and towns and communities producing them take great pride in their work. It is interesting that “crèche” is also the French term for a nursery for young children during the day.
This tradition is particularly strong in Provence, the south of France, with a crèche includes the usual host of characters but has some special ones as well. Local figures such as the mayor, the little drummer boy, or a peasant dressed in traditional attire are also present. There are also traditions in some places where people dress as the shepherds and join in a procession to the church. Children also traditionally contribute to the crèches by pebbles and rocks, moss, and pieces of evergreens to complete the nativity scene. When the scene is set, everyone in the town joins in singing traditional Christmas carols.
What are your traditions of Christmas?
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.