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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shepherds Can’t Follow the Star


I know that I can be critical (maybe overly so) of the songs and carols played during the extended Advent / Christmas season. I usually refuse to sing “Away in the manger” because of line “no crying he makes” is absolutely ridiculous. I realize  that my (overly) critical spirit is probably due, in part, to my general dislike of the Christmas season - still, there are aspects of the holiday I do like, and there are songs and carols I like despite their accuracy problems.

Take for instance the Christmas Spiritual, Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow. It’s difficult to find any information about the history of this particular song. One book I have says that “practically nothing is known of the source of this spiritual” (Evans 327).  Another points back, without further detail to the 1909 book, Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations. Online sources say that it likely originated with the slaves on plantations on the islands off the coast of Georgia and North Carolina.

There's a star in the East on Christmas morn,
Rise up, shepherd, and follow
It'll lead to the place where the Savior's born,
Rise up, shepherd, and follow

Leave your sheep and leave your lambs
Rise up, shepherd, and follow
Leave your ewes and leave your rams
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.
Follow, follow
Rise up, shepherd, and follow
Follow the star of Bethlehem
Rise up, shepherd, and follow

If you take good heed of the angel's words
Rise up, shepherd, and follow
You'll forget your flocks, you'll forget your herds
Rise up, shepherd, and follow

Encouraging the shepherd to “rise up and follow” the star conflates the two separate, and very distinct infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew. In Luke the shepherds are visited by an angel and given instructions to go to nearby Bethlehem. In Matthew, it is the Magi who follow the star (and later instructions from an angel seen in a dream). In neither one do shepherds follow “the star of Bethlehem.”

Still, angels are frequently equated with stars in the scriptures of the Hebrew and Christian bibles (see Job 38:7 and Revelation 12:4 for example.) So… we could say that the shepherds followed a star to Bethlehem. But that would be just convenient retconning to make the song fit the stories.

Despite all that, I still like the song.




Evans, George K. The International Book of Christmas Carols. Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press. 1963. Print.

Fenner, Thomas P. Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations. Hampton, Virginia: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. 1909. Print. 

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