Unto Us is Born a Son

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Puer nobis nascitur in the 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones, image combined from two pages of the source text.

"Puer nobis nascitur", usually translated as "Unto Us is Born a Son", is a medieval Christmas carol found in a number of manuscript sources—the 14th-century German Moosburg Gradual and a 15th-century Trier manuscript.[1] The Moosburg Gradual itself contained a number of melodies derived from the 12 and 13th century organum repertories of Notre Dame de Paris and the Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges, suggesting that its antiquity may be much greater.[2]

The song was first published in the 1582 Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a volume of 74 medieval songs with Latin texts collected by Jaakko Suomalainen, a Finnish Lutheran cleric, and published by T.P. Rutha, a Catholic printer.[3] The song book had its origins in the libraries of cathedral song schools, whose repertory also had strong links with medieval Prague, where clerical students from Finland and Sweden had studied for generations.[4] Songs from Piae Cantiones continued to be performed in Finland until the 19th century.[5]

The book became well known in Britain after a rare original copy of Piae Cantiones owned by Peter of Nyland was given as a gift to the British Minister in Stockholm. He subsequently gave it to John Mason Neale in 1852, and it was from this copy that Neale, in collaboration with Thomas Helmore published songs in two collections in 1853 and 1854 respectively, although this carol was not included in either.[5]

The carol became popular as a processional hymn following a translation by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1859-1934) first published in 1902.[6] Percy Dearmer also translated the hymn for inclusion in the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols as "Unto Us a Boy is Born".[7] Both translations are commonly used.

Robert Cummings of the All Music Guide notes that, "Its text speaks of the birth of Christ and of his mission on Earth. The melody is glorious in its triumphant character and ecstatic devotional sense...a radiant hymn of strong appeal, brighter and more colorful than most of the chants emerging from and before the fourteenth century." He goes on to suggest that the first phrase and indeed the whole melody resembles the much later hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past".[3]


Latin text of "Puer nobis nascitur" (1582)[8] English translation by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1859-1934)[6] English translation by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936)[7]

Puer nobis nascitur
Rector angelorum;
In hoc mundo pascitur
Dominus dominorum.

Unto us is born a son,
King of choirs supernal:
See on earth his life begun,
Of lords the Lord eternal.

Unto us a Boy is born,
King of all creation:
Came He to a world forlorn,
The Lord of every nation.

In præsepe ponitur
Sub fœno asinorum.
Cognoverunt dominum
Christum regem cœlorum.

Christ, from heav'n descending low,
Comes on earth a stranger;
Ox and ass their Owner know
Now cradled in a manger.

Cradled in a stall was He
'Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
That He all men surpasses.

Hinc Herodes timuit -
Magno cum dolore,
Et pueros occidit,
Infantes cum livore.

This did Herod sore affray,
And did him bewilder,
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.

Herod then with fear was filled:
"A prince," he said, "in Jewry!"
All the little boys he killed
At Bethl'em in his fury.

Qui natus est ex Marie -
Die hodierna
Ducat nos cum gratia
Ad gaudia superna.

Of his love and mercy mild
Hear the Christmas story:
O that Mary's gentle Child
Might lead us up to glory!

Now may Mary's Son, who came
Long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
To the joys above us.

O et A et A et O
Cum cantibus in choro,
Cum canticis et organo,
Benedicamus domino.

O and A and A and O,
Cantemus in choro,
Voice and organ, sing we so,
Benedicamus Domino.

Omega and Alpha He!
Let the organ thunder,
While the choir with peals of glee
Rends the air asunder.


  1. ^ John Garden, The Christmas Carol Dance Book, (Earthly Delights, 2003) ISBN 978-0-9750040-0-5
  2. ^ Ronald M. Clancy, Sacred Christmas Music: The Stories Behind the Most Beloved Songs of Devotion, (Sterling Publishing Company, 2008) ISBN 978-1-4027-5811-9, p.86.
  3. ^ a b Robert Cummings, "Unto Us is Born a Son" at allmusic, URL accessed November 25, 2010.
  4. ^ Hugh Keyte, Andrew Parrott, "Personent Hodie, On This Day Earth Shall Ring" in The Musical Times, Vol. 133, No. 1795 (September 1992), pp. 1–4.
  5. ^ a b Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw (ed.), note to J.M. Neale "January Carol" the Oxford Book of Carols (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), p.291.
  6. ^ a b George Ratcliffe Woodward, The Cowley Carol Book, First Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1902, Revised and Expanded Edition 1929). No. 25.
  7. ^ a b Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw (ed.), "Unto Us a Boy is Born" the Oxford Book of Carols (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), p.291.
  8. ^ J. H. Hopkins, ed., Great Hymns of the Church Compiled by the Late Right Reverend John Freeman Young (New York: James Pott & Company, 1887), p.88.

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