Appalachia Christmas Music

The Friendly Beasts Christmas Carol

Today’s guest post was originally published in December 2013 in The News Observer column THROUGH MOUNTAIN MISTS, which is written by Ethelene Dyer Jones.

The Friendly Beasts Christmas Carol


“The Friendly Beasts” Christmas Carol written by Ethelene Dyer Jones

Nowadays, perhaps because of the ‘politically correct’ tone that has pervaded almost every public expression, including the celebration of Christmas, we do not often hear the old, familiar carols we once heard played over the sound system in shopping centers. The blare might more likely now be secular songs about “the holiday,” our current (and acceptable—so as not to offend anyone) terminology for Christmas.

But, running through my mind, from the first of December until the special day we celebrate Christmas—Advent Day, Emmanuel, ‘God with us’—I hum, sing, listen to and enjoy Christmas carols. I hesitate to list my favorite, for all are a part of my humming repertoire, and I really like many, many of them, the music, the lyrics, the thoughts they bring to my mind, and the memories of happy Christmases-past that the carol music invokes.

Lately, “The Friendly Beasts” has become my Christmas carol to hum and sing. I have heard it daily as I visit my friend Tipper Pressley’s “Bling Pig and the Acorn” blog, where she features Christmas Music by “The Blind Pig Gang.” This group is made up of her brother Paul Wilson, lead singer and guitarist [and he alternates playing other stringed instruments, too,]; her father Jerry Wilson, known as “Pap,” guitarist and harmonizing with a fine tenor voice; her twin daughters better known as Chitter and Chatter, harmonizing and also playing guitar and violin:, and, bringing in the depth of sound is Mary Jane Wilson Pressley, “Tipper” herself, on bass guitar. Their rendition of “The Friendly Beasts,” not-too-familiar a carol, has reverberated in my mind since the first day I heard it this year on “Blind Pig.” Their rendition of the carol sent me looking for its origin and history, and this is what I found:

“The Friendly Beasts” is a traditional Christmas Carol dating back to the 12th century in France. Set to the melody of the Latin folk song, “Orientis Partibus,” the song recounts the gifts brought to the Baby Jesus by a donkey, a cow, a sheep, a camel and a dove. The words were translated into English by Robert Davis (1881-1950) in the 1920’s. By the 1930’s it was popular not only in France, where it had originated centuries before, in England and had spread to other countries. It was sometimes called “The Song of the Ass,” or “The Donkey Carol,” or “The Gift of the Animals.” Tradition holds that the idea for the song came not only from the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem from Nazareth before Jesus was born, but also one that carried Mary to Egypt when she, Joseph and the Babe went there to escape the decree of Herod that all Jewish babies two and under were to be killed. Many churches observed “Donkey Day” and would actually bring donkeys to church to remind them of the important role that animal held at the time of the birth of Jesus the Lord.

Some artists who popularized the carol in America were Burl Ives in 1952 who sang it in his album, “Christmas Day in the Morning.” Others who have included the carol in their Christmas carol recordings have been Harry Belafonte, and Johnny Cash with Belafonte in their “The Gifts They Gave.” We’ve heard the music and lyrics from Rise Stevens, Danny Taddei, Peter-Paul-and-Mary, Sufja Stevens, Garth Brooks (1992) and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Mitchell, singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, had the beasts and dove present and heard in the recording.

Perhaps you, as I, often wish you had the words of a tune that plays at your mind’s edge and begs for voice. Here are the words from Davis’s translation. There are other versions, too. I give you the words here so that you can perhaps listen and sing along if you hear “The Friendly Beasts”:

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.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow all white and red,
“I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.”
“I,” said the cow all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm:
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

“I,” said the dove from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I.”
“I,” said the dove from the rafters high.

“And I,” said the camel all yellow and black,
Over the desert upon my back,
I brought Him a gift in the Wise Men’s pack.”
“I,” said the camel all yellow and black.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

“I,” was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

May your Christmas come trustingly, as it did with the animals gathered in Bethlehem’s stall. And may our gifts be laced with as much sincerity and love as that expressed by the animals in this ancient carol from the 12th century.


A version of The Friendly Beasts is on Pap and Paul’s Songs of Christmas cd.

Give it a listen-its one of my favorites!

If you’re interested in purchasing one of Paul and Pap’s cds- Songs of Christmas you can jump over to the Blind Pig & the Acorn Etsy Store and pick one up.


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  • Reply
    December 15, 2014 at 2:33 am

    I do remember the song, but can’t remember which artist made it popular in my childhood. If I had to guess though, I would think it would have been Burl Ives rendition.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    I’ve always liked this carol. I hope to share it with my grands.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks Tipper,Etheline,Pap and Paul,So enjoyed my wake up this morning!God Bless.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Nice story, Ethelene, on the history of The Friendly Beasts. I
    hadn’t heard it before, until Paul
    and Pap sung it a few years ago.The
    Blind Pig Gang sure does a nice job
    on this one too…Ken

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Ah! I had forgotten about this tune. I like the rhythm and the words. I’m glad for the reminder and silently enjoyed the words and the music. So sweet for the season!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 14, 2014 at 11:02 am

    I am not the brightest bulb on the string but I am smart enough to recognize quality when I see it. I bought the Christmas CD several months ago. I get tired of Christmas carols quickly so I didn’t crack it open until a couple of days ago. All the songs are really really good. A couple are exceptional. Track #7 is my favorite. It is perfection in its imperfection. Absolutely the best Christmas Carol I ever heard. If you can’t buy the whole thing, buy #7. If you don’t like it I’LL give your money back.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 10:15 am

    We learn something new every day. I had never heard this song. Thanks so much Ethelene, and thanks to Pap and Paul for the lovely song. I am so pleased to enjoy the Blind Pig and not be reminded constantly of “political correctness” by all media. It will always be Christmas, and I will always listen to the beautiful Christmas carols with wonder and amazement.
    Unfortunately this is a new era and a new day, so all the more reason to cling to the beautiful songs and traditions of an Appalachian Christmas.

  • Reply
    Joyce Heishman
    December 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Thank you Tipper for sharing this. I had never heard the song. I suppose growing up in different part of the country gives you different Christmas songs. My favorite will always be “Silent Night”. In these terrible times slowly they are taking away any part of Jesus birth from Christmas. We must diligently continue to make sure Our children do not lose sight of our Savior. God bless you and Merry CHRISTmas.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 10:01 am

    The songs of Christmas cd includes most of my favorite Christmas songs. I have just about worn it out since I ordered it a few weeks ago.
    Thanks for sharing the history of the carol. I love The Friendly Beasts, but it was not a song I heard as a child.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 14, 2014 at 8:41 am

    and Ethelene, I enjoyed your article very much. I remember singing “The Friendly Beasts” when we were in 6th grade. Of course, our teacher was a very talented musician as well. There was always time devoted to music, especially around the holidays. I just loved that grade, or did I just love all the singing!
    I hadn’t heard the song very often in the past years until I heard the Blind Pigs rendition and melody. Although I love Burl Ives, (have several albums from my youthful years) I am not as fond of the melody and way he sings the song. Blind Pig version is the best, we love it as all the Christmas carols they sing.
    Thanks Tipper,
    and Ethlene

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    December 14, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Thank you so much, Tipper, for reposting my column on “The Friendly Beasts.” And thanks to Paul and Pap for their remarkable rendition of the carol! May the story of how the carol came to us and the singing of it refresh our faith in the deep, deep meaning of Christmas! A joyous Christmas to all!

  • Reply
    December 14, 2014 at 8:25 am

    As my children grew up, this song was often included in the Children’s Pageant with children bringing their stuffed animals. Some years new verses were added (composed by the children) to honor a child’s favorite toy. Seems one year there was a dragon: “I said the dragon with fire and scales, I kept him safe where he lay, I kept the bad guys far away, I kept him safe where he lay.”
    Some said it was disrespectful; personally, I think if it helps the child understand the whole story, that even a baby could be in danger but that there were many offering their own talents to keep the baby safe – why not? After all, children learn through their imaginations.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 14, 2014 at 8:14 am

    Thanks Ethelene, again. The history is interesting and the song is quite lovely.
    I do miss our music player. Tipper has been working very hard to find us another one but so far has had no luck.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 14, 2014 at 7:55 am

    I remember this carol, did not realize how much I had missed it.

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