The First Noel

The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel.

Introduction

We are already on our sixth hymn for NGT’s Twelve Days of Christmas Carols! Hopefully, you have enjoyed each post and learned to appreciate these wonderful holiday songs even more.

For our sixth post, we will be uncovering the history, musicality, and theology of The First Noel. This carol has to be my childhood favorite, mostly because my twin sister’s middle name just happens to be Noelle. We would sing this hymn over and over again, generally acting for our Barbie dolls, adding in harmony, a descant, ‘boy’ voices, and creating a full choir.

I love the flowing music and soaring notes of the refrain, the simple runs, even the rhyming of the lyrics. But enough said, let’s get into the details of this hymn!

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History of the Hymn

It is likely that The First Noel extends back to the 16th or 18th century in oral form. It appeared for the first time in print in Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823), compiled by Davies Gilbert in London, England, or, others contend, in a collection of seasonal carols by William B. Sandys entitled Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833). The hymn originally contained nine stanzas, five of which remain common amongst various hymnals. Although the first stanza depicts the angels’ appearance to the shepherds as told in Luke 2:1-20, the majority of the verses focus on the journey of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12).

Brief Recap of ‘Carol’

The reason for that particular subject is due to the fact that The First Noel is actually an Epiphany carol. Traditionally, the majority of carols are associated with Christmas. However, the carol folk custom was employed at other high seasons of the Christian Year, including Holy Week and Easter. Although Christmas carols are sung throughout the world, their origin is largely European and often, one cannot ascribe a specific author or composer to the songs, as is the case with The First Noel.

Historically, carols would have been sung outside the Catholic Mass in nonliturgical gatherings, gaining popularity through oral tradition. In their earliest forms, people probably used carols as a means of preserving and spreading biblical or quasi-religious narratives among the illiterate.

Contrarily, Christmas hymns are a part of the literate song tradition. While carols began to flourish during the medieval era, we can trace Christmas hymns to the 4th century, during the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) and subsequent councils where the Nicene Creed was shaped, defining the nature of Christ in what became orthodox theology. These early Latin hymns were polemical statements explaining the doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism, a concept that asserted that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was created by God at a specific point in time and was an entity distinct from God the Father, and therefore subordinate to the Father.

Since then, telling the story of the birth of Christ through music has been an important tradition, especially in the Western Church. As congregational participation, including singing, was very limited in the medieval Catholic Mass, the people’s song developed outside the church. In most cases, the composers of these carols have long been lost in time, partly a function of their oral tradition. Undoubtedly, carols existed in oral forms long before being published in collections.

All that to say that we do not know who composed The First Noel.

Epiphany & Meaning

We do know that the song is meant for Epiphany. Epiphany, otherwise known as “Three Kings Day” and “Twelfth Day,” is a Christian holiday commemorated on January 6. It falls on the twelfth day after Christmas, and for some denominations signals the conclusion of the holiday season. Although many different cultural and denominational customs are practiced, as a rule, the feast celebrates the manifestation of God to the world in the form of human flesh through Jesus Christ, his Son.

Noel

Hence the word ‘noel.’ Noel–in English, ‘nowell’ or even ‘noelle’–is the modern spelling of the old French word ‘nouel.’ The derivation of this word probably comes from the earlier Latin term ‘natalis,’ relating to birth. The Latin phrase “dies natalis” means “birthday.” Some also suggest that noel is related to ‘novellare’ or ‘nouvelle’ meaning ‘new’ (i.e., something to tell). The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest use of the word in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1395), where the poet cites “The Franklin’s Tale” (1255): “And ‘Nowel’ crieth every lusty man.”

In essence, then, The First Noel is a song about the birth of Jesus. It is believed that the villagers would sing the carol as they brought in the Yule log on Christmas Eve. They would burn the Yule log to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness. But as the carol spends the majority of its original eight stanzas discussing the journey of the Magi, it fits perfectly into the holiday of Epiphany as well.

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Musicality of the Hymn

The melody of this carol has been the subject of speculation. As noted, the first printed of the tune comes from either Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, by William Sandys, or from Some Ancient Christmas Carols. The version in Sandys’s collection was transcribed from Cornwall in 1827 and bears some resemblance to other melodies from the region. The stanzas consist of two identical sections, plus the refrain, which feels like a slight variant from the verse structure.

A Unique Structure

Unlike the standard musical bar form (AAB), the musical structure of most German tunes, The First Noel bears an AAA form. Perhaps the structure resembles that of medieval storytelling in the chanson de geste form. Between the 11th and 12th centuries, clerics used chanson de geste to tell epic stories in northern France. While little of the music is preserved, the chanson de geste repeated a simple melodic formula to tell the story, very similar to the melodic structure of The First Noel. This seems to be a more logical explanation of the extreme repetition in the melody rather than some other speculations, including notions that the singer forgot the proper melody.

Furthermore, Cornwall, on the southeastern tip of England, is on the English Channel directly across northern France. As a result, it is easy to explain the musical form for the carol as the effect of cross-cultural influence. Undoubtedly, the melody and text have been smoothed out over the centuries, becoming the song we know and love today, but its essential character remains intact. An early version of the first couplet reads: “The first Nowell that the Angel did say/Was to three poor shepherds in fields as they lay. The Cornish Songbook (1929) edited by Ralph Dunstan prints the first stanza as follows:

O well, O well, the Angels did say
To shepherds there in the fields did lay;
Late in the night a-folding their sheep,
A winter’s night, both cold and bleak.
O well, O well, O well, O well,
Born is the King of Israel.

A New Melody

Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) standardized the melody, providing a harmonization that has become the customary one today. William Sandys published Stainer’s arrangement in Christmas Carols New and Old  (1876). The eight-measure melody repeats for two times in each stanza plus the refrain. Stainer enhanced the refrain by allowing the tenors to soar to a high F-sharp on the final “Noel,” giving it a sense of climax, while the soprano maintains the repetition throughout.

Check out the Staple Hill Salvation Army Band playing Stainer’s version. Or listen to Pentatonix, Josh Groban, or a different orchestral version of The First Noel.

Repetition Is The Key

The repeated “Noel” has the character of spreading the good news – “born is the King of Israel.” A final stanza, occasionally used in hymnals, draws all humanity into the story and extends the salvation narrative to Christ’s suffering. This stanza places the birth of Jesus, and thus the entire celebration of Christmas, into the fuller context of redemption:

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

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Theology of the Hymn

The First Noel is ripe with theological content. It primarily follows the journey of the three Magi, from the moment they “looked up and saw a star/shining in the east beyond them far.”

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” 

Matthew 2:1-2

The star alerted the Magi about the birth of Christ, prompting their long trek to Jerusalem. The Magi are generally believed to be astronomers or magicians from the East, perhaps from Persia, and were not ‘Kings’ as they were later termed. The confusion may stem from the fact that Magi traditionally visited kings. Living near or in Persia, the men may have had some knowledge of the Scriptures, as the prophet Daniel had also lived in the region centuries earlier and wrote many prophecies regarding the Kingdom of God. The Magi might also have read passages such as Numbers 24:17, which describes a star coming from Jacob and a King from Israel.

Thus, the refrain fits nicely with the entire theme of the carol, for the star signified to the Magi that the King of Israel was born.

Following the Star

Curiously, the Magi appear to have been the only ones who saw the star, or at least the only ones to understand its meaning. King Herod had to ask the Magi when the star had appeared (Matt. 2:7). Nevertheless, the Magi persevered, strongly and steadfastly believing in the truth of the heavenly sign.

And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from the country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

Contrary to what is commonly believed, the wise men did not arrive on the night of Christ’s birth; rather, they found the young Jesus and His parents living in a house (2:11). This could have been nearly two years after Christ’s birth since Herod—fearful of his own position as king—attempted to eliminate the threat by killing all male children in the region of Bethlehem under the age of two (2:16).

Perhaps the star first appeared over Bethlehem when the Magi were in the East. From that distance, they would not have been able to distinguish the exact location but would certainly have known to head west. They went to the capital city Jerusalem, a likely place to begin their search for the King of Israel. While there, it seems likely that the star disappeared for a short time (2:2), reappearing the moment the Magi began their short, six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (2:10).

The Star Rests

After the Magi departed from the Holy City, the star went on before them to Bethlehem and stood over the location of Jesus. It seems to have led them to the very house that Jesus was in—not just the city, which they already knew from speaking with Herod (2:4-5, 8). For a normal star, it would be impossible to determine which house stood directly beneath it. The star over Christ may have been relatively near the surface of the earth (an “atmospheric” manifestation of God’s power), allowing the Magi to discern the precise location of the holy Child. The First Noel captures the image perfectly, declaring:

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest,
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right over the place where Jesus lay.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

A Long Journey’s End

As a response to seeing the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the fulfillment of their hearts’ desire and the intent of their long, dangerous trek, the Magi fall before Christ, offering Him gifts of material wealth and gifts of humble, adoring spirits. Matthew 2:11 reads, “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

Then entered in those wise men three,
Fell reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the kind of Israel.

We All Join In Rejoicing

And thus, The First Noel faithfully and beautifully records the story of the Magi. In doing so, it invites the singers and listeners alike to participate in that long journey of wonder, anticipation, suffering, wandering, joy, and utter satisfaction and fulfillment at the feet of our Savior. The carol fittingly concludes with a stanza proclaiming to believers,

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

image for the first noel

Concluding Thoughts

Honestly, there is not much left to say about The First Noel. It is simple yet powerful, beautiful yet effective. Or perhaps it is powerful and impactful precisely because it is simple and beautiful?

Personally, I think the reason I enjoy this carol so much is because it symbolizes a “lost” tradition for the majority of the Western Church. We no longer celebrate Epiphany or even the twelve days of Christmas for that matter, so it is nice to see that something still remains. It reminds us of the richness of the holiday, of the depth and importance of the birth of Christ. Jesus came to bless all nations, not just the Jewish people. He came to save the lowly, illiterate shepherds and to transform the lives of the wise, educated, and wealthy among us.

Simply put, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, which includes each and every person who lived, is living, and who will live on this earth, until the end of time.

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