It is one of the most famous carols; a herald proclaiming the coming of Christmas. But how old is this song we grew up with, and where does it come from? The First Noel’s origins are humble, not unlike the story it tells.
Originating in Cornwall, a county in South West England, The First Noel came about during the Proto-Renaissance (the period that led into the Renaissance), during the 13th or 14th century. Miracle Plays were among the earliest forms of theater, and came about during this time. The plays portrayed famous Bible stories, and the story of Jesus’ birth would have been amongst the most popular. The First Noel is thought to have originated from one of these Miracle Plays. Perhaps the carol was written for a play, or simply inspired by a play. Either way, it took on a vibrant life of its own beyond the stage. Citizens of Cornwall would sing the carol in streets outside of churches, and the unique and beautiful song would latch onto all who heard it, its melody bringing joy, its lyrics bringing hope.
The First Noel survived and spread across the earth for centuries before being first transcribed in 1823. It was published within a collection of carols simply called Some Ancient Christmas Carols. This London publication sparked new life in the carol, and inspired Davies Gilbert and William Sandys to truly breathe new life into the ancient song. Sandys constructed a new arrangement for the carol, while Gilbert added new lyrics. They are credited for bringing the song into the modern era, and would be overjoyed to know their work has led to the carol being more alive today than ever before.
The First Noel was written as a way to express the excitement and wonder of Christmas. Hundreds of years ago, during a time without internet or phones, the people of Cornwall sang it in the streets as a way to spread hope and joy. The world may look very different today, but we still gather to sing the song for the same reasons. The song is a testament to the fact that no matter what the earth looks like, no matter how much time passes, the encouraging story of Jesus will always connect with the hearts that are desperate for Him.
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