The carol includes solos for sop, contr, ten and bass. It was written for a BBC feature programme, Poet's Christmas, produced by Edward Sackville-West, which also included the première of Tippett's The Weeping Babe. The chorus is one of the two portions of the Christmas Oratorio by W. H. Auden (the complete text of which was later published as For the Time Being) set by Britten, and it was withdrawn by the composer after the first performance and not performed again until 1961. The carol was also published as a supplement to The Musical Times, no. 1436 (October 1962).
A Shepherd's Carol