The French carol “Les anges dans nos campagnes,” now known as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” is completely anonymous. It has always been printed with no known lyricist or composer. The beautiful carol tells the story of Christ’s birth, when the angel choir told the good news to nearby shepherds. The chorus, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” reflects the chorus of the angel choir that long-ago Christmas night.
Many years ago shepherds in the hills of southern France had a Christmas Eve custom of calling to one another, singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” each from his own hillside. The traditional tune that the shepherds used may have been from a late Medieval Latin chorale. It became the magnificent chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
The carol seems to be of eighteenth-century origin, since it was known in England by 1816. At that time James Montgomery wrote his carol “Angels From the Realms of Glory”, originally basing it on the tune of “Les anges dans nos campagnes.” “Angels From the Realms of Glory” was sung to the French tune until Henry Tomas Smart wrote a new tune for it in 1967.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” was first published in France in 1855. The English translation came seven years later, in Henri Frederick’s Crown of Jesus Music. This 1862 translation differed from the form we use now. The version we use today was first printed in a 1916 American carol collection entitled Carols Old and Carols New.
Sheep scattered around, the shepherds settled in for another quiet night, probably swapping stories as they watched the flocks. Then, in a divine moment, God burst into the night. Angels appeared, singing songs and speaking of the Savior’s birth. And suddenly, the shepherds’ ordinary lives were transformed-becoming part of a story that’s lived for thousands of years.
Angels We Have Heard on High” reminds us of this amazing night. In the beautiful strains of its chorus, this carol helps us experience a taste of what that angel chorus might have sounded like as it proclaimed the “good news.”
Christ’s birth certainly was good news to those simple shepherds. The Savior changed their lives forever. And God still loves to speak to ordinary people and transform their lives into something extraordinary through his grace.
As we sing of the angels’ great announcement, let’s remember that God still wants to announce the “good news” today, using people like you and me. Helping a family in need, sharing the gospel story with a prisoner, encouraging a friend who’s going through tough times-in these and countless other ways we can announce Jesus’ birth to the “shepherds” of our day.
Through our words and actions, we can show that Jesus still lives in the hearts of man. So in this Christmas season, and all through the coming year, let’s continue the angel song. Let’s tell the world all about Jesus, and how he’s changed our lives forever.
Lyrics: Traditional French Carol
Lyrics Date: 18th Century
Translator: James Chadwick, Crown of Jesus Music
Translation Date: 1862
Music: Traditional French Melody
Music Date: 18th Century
Tune Name: GLORIA
Arranger: Edward S. Barnes
Arranged Date: 1937
Scripture: Luke 2:14
Copyright © 2011 Center for Church Music