The First Noël

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

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east, beyond them far;
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
Born is the King of Israel!

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

This star drew nigh to the northwest:
Over Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right over the place where Jesus lay.
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
Born is the King of Israel!

The First Noël, or Nowell, is a traditional English carol that dates back to the 13th or 14th centuries; “Nowell” is a medieval English synonym for Christmas and has its origins in in the Norman French “noël.” Some sources assert that has specifically Cornish origins, but its age means that is could be found sung in different parts of Britain. It was included in Carols Ancient and Modern in 1823, one of the earliest anthologies of Christmas hymns that was assembled, and it has been included in most hymnals since then. The change from Nowell to Noël is thought to be adoption of the American spelling from the late 19th century onwards. Some versions of the carol run to seven verses but most commonly only the first four are sung, as clergymen are conscious of the need to include as many carols as possible in their Christmas services.

There are a few contenders for the honour of being the oldest carol but it’s hard to identify what the key criteria might be; with some the words have been changed and with others the melody might vary or change. The First Noël has had a few textual changes as mentioned, but is perhaps unique in that it has only ever been associated with tune we use today, and it is the same as the one recorded at the point it was transcribed in 1823.; nobody has intervened to apply an alternative melody to the verses.

Merry Christmas

Header image: Regent Street Angel by Luke Stackpoole at Unsplash

Footer image: Studio David Hillman and David Holmes, British postage stamp, 2015 – The Shepherds