Learn more about the hymncharts arrangement of The First Noel.
by Taylor Brantley
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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But no one has ever explained in the dozens of books and carol histories that I have over my 69 years how the first verse is about the shepherds, and immediately in the second verse “they”, the shepherds(?), saw a star…..oh, no…..that must be the wise men and then the rest of carol is about the wise men…..no logical flow, it’s theologically and historically wrong, and more. It’s not the only carol with questionable Biblical theology and history and that’s why I don’t use certain carols in my worship planning without tweaking them to make sense.
You are correct! However, you need to keep in mind this is a very old song and actually has had several translations throughout the years. There were originally even more verses (some counts are as high as 9) and these are rarely if ever used because they’re more clunky than the ones we have now. Here’s an example:
Then did they know assuredly,
Within that house, the king did lie;
One entered in then for to see,
And found the babe in poverty.
Songs like this from hundreds of years ago were passed about by word of mouth (most people couldn’t read or write) and I think it’s fairly evident they didn’t have the grammatical lyric standards we have today. A carol like this should be enjoyed nostalgically – don’t expect a lyrical masterpiece. I suggest using these four verses I’ve picked as I feel they’re the best of the available 6. Since The First Noel (and all hymns on this website) are public domain, feel free to tweak any lyrics you see fit!
Remarkably cogent response. Thank you. I also had wondered about the odd clunky nature of the words, whose rhymes and meter feel awkwardly contrived in order to somehow match the tune. The theology issue never even occurred to me because the grammar in the first stanza doesn’t really make enough sense to propound much anyway. I sing it for nostalgia and pretty much have never cared what the words actually say, if they say anything. It’s kind of an impressionist painting, in the musical sense, that evokes general ideas of the nativity.
Strangely, I have had misgsivings in this Christmas carol, “The First Noel”…!
I have sung it over many years, since I was a little boy….It has many fond memories for me.
As a Christian, the general wording, has been acceptable, though not strictly scriptural, and I
already know, from Luke chapter two, the details of the Lord’s proclamation, of his royal
decree….. at is holy nativity….!
It lacks poetic rhythm, metrical consistency, and I agree, that it has a clunky, perhaps even an awkwardness, yet despite the unfavourable
comments, I have always enjoyed singing it….
and still do.
Words, warts and all.!
That’s not strange at all, I have the same misgivings! That’s why I picked the verses I did – the other ones are a little too… problematic… for my theological tastes 🙂