It’s the first day of December and what better song to study than The First Noel? This will be the third year I’ve written for the holiday series “You’re Singing History” and I’ve collected historical facts and context for five more holiday songs this year.
Let the Christmas season and music begin…
Poor Shepherds, Three Wise Men
Last weekend I helped my family and grandparents with Christmas decorating, and I arranged many nativity sets on the shelves. Sometimes our perception of the Advent account is shadowed by the art depicting the nativity. And – to put it simply – Western Art loves to take beautiful liberties.
Historically speaking though…
In Ancient Times, shepherds were…well, sort of “low lifes” in society. They were hired to mind sheep (oftentimes for the wealthy). They watched over flocks of cute, but dirty and dumb, sheep. They lived in the fields, faithfully looking after those flocks. In the historical context and from a human perspective, a bunch of shepherds seemed like the least likely folks to get one of the most marvelous announcements in history!
And what about those “kings” or “wise men”? First off, no matter what the children’s picture books show, nativity sets suggest, and music declares, we don’t know that there were only three men from the east. There could’ve been two, three, or many! So…were they kings? Again, historically speaking, they were probably wise men from the region of Babylon who studied the stars as part of their traditional religion which involved astrology. From the prophecies in centuries past, these wise men might have known what the prophets had written about a coming king and the date of his arrival. Keen to watch the heavens and record changes in the sky, they noticed a new star and believed it was the sign that the promised King had arrived. They began a lengthy journey to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem where – in a house (not a stable) – they found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
Is it a French or English song?
The First Noel’s origins are a little mysterious, and both France and England claim the song is theirs. It’s probable that it was written in France in the 15th Century and eventually arrived in England with the travel minstrels of the Medieval Era. The word “Noel” is French translated from Latin, meaning “birthday.” The lyrics were likely written by a common person with the limited Biblical knowledge common during that era, which accounts for the shepherds seeing the star in verse two.
Once the song arrived in England, it was a folk carol – meaning it wasn’t a song controlled by the Church. Sometime in the song’s English transformation the spelling of Noel was changed to “Nowell.” (I have opted to revert to the French spelling as a nod to its original beginnings.)
First published in 1833 by William Sandys in “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern” as part of his collection of historic songs. The music was harmonized by John Stainer.
Here are the lyrics. All six verses!
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.
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: (Refrain)
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: (Refrain)
Then entered in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense: (Refrain)
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 hath bought: (Refrain)
Enjoy The Music
May your holiday season be filled with music and a remembrance of the King of Israel. Noel!