I’m doing a short series on unknown lyrics in Christmas songs and hymns. I wrote about “bells on bob tails ring” from Jingle Bells, and then “We three kings of Orient are…” and focused on the Orient mentioned in the song.
Someone asked me recently when I mentioned I’m doing this series, what does “Noel” mean. The song “The First Noel” is explained from Wikipedia:
[It] is a traditional classical English Christmas carol, most likely from the early modern period, although possibly earlier. Noel is an Early Modern English synonym of “Christmas”.
The First Noel is of Cornish origin. Its current form was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833).
The Annunciation to the shepherds and the Adoration of the shepherds are episodes in the Nativity of Jesus described in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2). The Star of Bethlehem appears in the story of the Magi (the Wise Men) in the Gospel of Matthew; it does not appear in the story of the shepherds.
The song seems to go even earlier than that, as titled The First Nowell, here explained,
Words & Music: Traditional English carol of the 16th or 17th century, but possibly dating from as early as the 13th Century. This combination of tune and lyrics first appeared in the early 1800s.
This interesting and deeper history of carols in general and The First Noel in particular, is explained here at History of Hymns published by a UMC site:
The second question is, “What does ‘noel’ mean?” “Nowell,” the English transliteration, comes from the old French “nouel,” which is now written in modern French as “noël.” The derivation of this word probably comes from the earlier Latin term “natalis,” relating to a birth.
I had this misconception too, that noel was from the French. So I’m glad my friend asked me:
The First Noel is unknown in origin but is generally thought to be English dating back to the sixteenth century. There is a misconception that the First Noel was French and it is believed that this is because of the French spelling of Noel as opposed to the olde English Anglo-Saxon spelling of the word as in Nowell. After England was captured by the Normans numerous words were adopted from the Norman French language and Noel was re-spelt as Nowell, early printed versions of this carol use the Nowell spelling. The First Noel was first published in 1833 when it appeared in “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern,” a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys.
Here is a rendition of The First Noel that I like. Hope you do too… Thanks for reading!