When it comes to the music of Christmas, some of my most treasured memories are of singing in the A Cappella Choir at LSU. Under the skillful hand of our director, Dallas Draper, the choir presented a beautiful candlelight concert each year. It would always begin with a well-rehearsed processional of the choir entering the auditorium from the back. The evenly-spaced members would come in one by one holding battery-operated candles (safety first) while alternating singing “Angels From the Realms of Glory” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”
It was quite the spectacle and set the stage for a wonderful evening of music. Of course, there was some mischief to be had as few of us sang “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night.” I’m not sure if Dr. Draper ever knew about it. If he did, he must have turned a deaf ear and just chuckled to himself.
That song, the real version, is not as familiar as some of the other carols. However, it is worth another look.
The text was written by Nahum Tate and dates to around 1700. It has been set to many tunes, the first tune paired with it was written by George Kirbye in 1592. One interesting fact is that this song was the only Christmas song authorized by the Church of England in the 1700s to be included along with the Book of Common Prayer. The other Christmas songs of the times were set to tunes considered too secular. The tune most commonly used in the U.S. (and by my a cappella choir) was arranged by Lowell Mason from an aria by Handel and the tune is named Christmas.
The song merely tells the story about the proclamation to the shepherds about the birth of the Christ child. It takes six verses to get it told! Fortunately, my LSU choir only repeated the first verse for the processional.
It has puzzled me and others through the ages why God sent the angels to shepherds. But, why not?! He has reached down into my life and that of countless other commoners and I’m so glad He did.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
1 While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around,
and glory shone around.
2 “Fear not,” said he — for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind —
“glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all mankind,
to you and all mankind.
3 “To you, in David’s town this day,
is born of David’s line,
the Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
and this shall be the sign,
and this shall be the sign:
4 “The heav’nly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
and in a manger laid,
and in a manger laid.”
5 Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith
appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God, who thus
addressed their joyful song,
addressed their joyful song:
6 “All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace:
good will henceforth, from heav’n to men,
begin and never cease,
begin and never cease!”
Here’s a version of the original tune sung by King’s Choir.