What are the lyrics to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, and what’s the story?

9 December 2020, 13:16

What are the lyrics to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’?
What are the lyrics to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’? Picture: Getty

By Sian Moore

The Christmas carol describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds is a favourite for many. But how well do you know it?

The wonderful nativity hymn, ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, was first published in A Supplement to the New Version of Psalms in 1700, the lyrics a collaborative effort from Irish poets Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady.

It claims to be the first Christmas hymn authorised to be sung by the Anglican Church – before then, only the Psalms of David were permitted – and today, it’s one of only 16 works in the 1700 supplement to still be sung.

As for the melody, the popular carol is sung to a variety of tunes, but two seem to have stuck.

For festive singers in the UK, the the hymn is generally sung to the tune of ‘Winchester Old’. But across the pond, carollers opt for a variation on an aria by Handel, taken from his opera Siroe, arranged by Lowell Mason.

Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time >

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night {Hymn} [King's - 2011, № 10]

Read more: 13 primary school hymns that were 100% certified belters >

  1. What is ‘While Shepherds Watched’ actually about?

    The traditional Christmas carol tells of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, an episode in the Nativity of Jesus described in the Bible in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in which angels tell a group of shepherds about the birth of Jesus.

    Kings College Choir
    Kings College Choir. Picture: Getty
  2. What are the lyrics to ‘While Shepherds Watched’?

    When shepherds washed their socks by night
    All seated round the tub...

    Only joking, of course. Here are the official words to ‘While Shepherds Watched’.

    While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
    all seated on the ground,
    the angel of the Lord came down
    and glory shone around.

    “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 in David’s town this day
    is born of David’s line
    a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
    And this shall be the sign:

    “The heavenly babe you there shall find
    to human view displayed,
    all meanly wrapped in swathing bands
    and in a manger laid.”

    Thus spoke the seraph, and forthwith
    appeared a shining throng
    of angels praising God, who thus
    addressed their joyful song:

    “All glory be to God on high,
    and to the earth be peace;
    goodwill henceforth from highest heaven
    begin and never cease!”

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