Behind the Christmas Carol: Angels We Have Heard on High
Angels We Have Heard on High commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke. The song focuses on the shepherds encounter with the angels foretelling of the birth of the newborn child.
Reports say that in 129 A.D. Pope Telesphorus ordained that the “Gloria” be sung at the Christmas Eve midnight mass. The phrase became known as the “Angels Hymn” and considered one of the earliest known Christmas hymns.
The “Gloria” is believed to have inspired the chorus in Angels We Have Heard on High. The tune is believe to be inspired by an unknown tune that was arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes in the early 1900s.
French legend indicates that in medieval times on Christmas Eve, the shepherds would sing and call to one another from one hillside to another. “They would call “Gloria in excelsis Deo” which means “glory to God in the highest” in Latin. It was how they would spread their holiday message and cheer from points far away to one another. From hillside to valley, the shepherd’s song must have truly sounded like angels calling to one another in celebration of the birth of Christ for the Christians living in nearby regions. Also, the song reflects the shepherd’s joy that the time of the holiday season has arrived yet again.”
Angels We Have Heard on High is of French origin and originally titled “Les anges dans nos campagnes“. The original author of the song is unknown, but believed to be from Languedoc, France.
The carol was first published in the 1855 the Nouveau Recueil de Cantiques hymn book.
In 1862, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, northeast England, James Chadwick translated the song into English. The English version was published that years in the Crown of Jesus Music.
Iain MacMilan translated the English translation into Scots Gaelic.
The version that has become popular worldwide was published later, in 1916, in the book Carols Old and Carols New. The Barnes arrangement is believed to first be published around 1937, probably in the New Church Hymnal.
Imagine being with the shepherds when the angels appeared to them on that amazing Christmas morning.