History of Hymns: 'The First Noel'
By C. Michael Hawn
“The First Noel”
Anonymous, Traditional English Carol,
The United Methodist Hymnal, 245
The first Noel the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
in field 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.
This Epiphany carol raises several questions. First, “What is a carol?” While the majority of carols are associated with Christmas, the folk carol tradition was employed at other high seasons of the Christian year, including Holy Week and Easter. Although Christmas carols are found throughout the world, their origin is largely European. Usually, no author or composer can be ascribed to them. Historically, carols would have been sung outside the Catholic Mass in non-liturgical gatherings and spread through oral tradition. In their earliest forms, the carols would have been ways of preserving and spreading biblical or quasi-religious narratives among those who were not literate.
Christmas hymns, by contrast, are a part of the literate song tradition. While carols began to flourish during the medieval era, Christmas hymns can be traced back to the fourth century during the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) and subsequent councils, where the adoption of the Nicene Creed defined the nature of Christ in what became orthodox theology. Early Latin hymns from this time were polemical statements that explained the doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism, a concept that asserted that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was created by God at a specific point in time and was an entity distinct from God the Father, and therefore subordinate to the Father. “Corde natus de Parentis” (“Of the Father’s love begotten,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 184) is one of the most famous hymns from this era that is still sung. The Spanish judge Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (c. 348–c. 413) left a legacy for the church’s sung faith that has lasted for centuries. See the following link for a discussion of this hymn: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-of-the-fathers-love-begotten.
Since that time, telling the story of the birth of Christ in song has been an important tradition, especially in the Western Church. Since congregational participation, including singing, was very limited in the medieval Catholic Mass, the people’s song developed outside the church. In most cases, the composers of these carols have long been lost in time, partly a function of their oral tradition. Undoubtedly, carols existed in oral forms long before being published in collections.
The second question is, “What does ‘Noel’ mean?” “Nowell,” the English transliteration, comes from the old French “Nouel” or “Noël,” modern French. The derivation of this word probably relates to the earlier Latin term “natalis” or birth. In Latin, “Dies natalis” means “birthday.” Some suggest that “Noel” is also related to “novellare” or “nouvelle” meaning “new” —something to tell. As hymnologist and hymnwriter Carl P. Daw, Jr. indicates, The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest use of “Nowel” is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1395) where the poet cites “The Franklin’s Tale” (1255): “And ‘Nowel’ crieth every lusty man” (Daw, 2016, 154).
“The First Noel” has its roots in the fifteenth century in its oral form, and it appeared on eighteenth-century broadsides in Helston, near Cornwall (Keyte and Parrott, 1992, 482). It was published first in the revised edition of Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823), edited by Davies Gilbert. Its publication in the famous Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), compiled by William Sandys in London (Sandys, 1833, 74–75) increased the carol’s prominence. Originally in nine stanzas, five are commonly used in most hymnals today. Though the angels’ appearance to the shepherds (Luke 2:1–20) is the subject of the first stanza, most of the carol focuses on the journey of the magi (Matthew 2:1–12), giving the carol an Epiphany focus.
The melody of this carol is the subject of some speculation. The first printing of the tune comes from Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833) by William Sandys (See https://archive.org/details/christmascarolsa00sandrich/page/194/mode/2up). This version of the tune was transcribed from a Cornwall collection (1827) and, indeed, bears some resemblance to other tunes from this region. The stanzas consist of two sections that are identical plus the refrain that is so similar that it appears to be a variant of the first two. Rather than a standard Bar Form (AAB), the musical structure of many German tunes like LOBE DEN HERRN (“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 139), this tune is AAA’.
British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917–1982), never one to mince words, noted: “But may we not whisper that THE FIRST NOWELL, beloved though it is, is really a terrible tune?” Recalling the extreme repetition, he concludes, “Something has gone amiss, surely, with the transmission of this tune” (Routley, 1958, 96). Perhaps, however, the musical structure is closer to the medieval storytelling form chanson de geste. This musical structure was used by clerics between the eleventh and twelfth centuries to tell epic stories in northern France. While little of the music is preserved, the chanson de geste repeated a simple melodic formula to tell the story, very similar to the melodic structure of our carol. For this author, this seems to be a more logical explanation of the extreme repetition in the melody rather than some other speculations, including notions that the singer forgot the proper melody, or it was transmitted improperly. Furthermore, Cornwall, on the southeastern tip of England, is on the English Channel directly across northern France. The telling of the story may have superseded the need for an interesting melody.
Undoubtedly, the melody and text have been smoothed out over the centuries to the form we have it today, but its essential character probably remains intact. An early version of the first couplet reads: “The first Nowell that the Angel did say / Was to three poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” The Cornish Songbook (1929), edited by Ralph Dunstan, prints the first stanza as follows:
O well, O well, the Angels did say
To shepherds there in the fields did lay;
Late in the night a-folding their sheep,
A winter’s night, both cold and bleak.
O well, O well, O well, O well,
Born is the King of Israel.
Since the carol was transmitted by aural/oral tradition, it is not impossible that the lesser known French word “Noël” sounded like “O well.”
Sir John Stainer (1840–1901) standardized the melody as we know it and provided a harmonization that has become the customary one today. Sandys published Stainer’s arrangement in Christmas Carols New and Old (1876). The eight-measure melody appears twice for each stanza, plus the refrain variant. Stainer enhanced the refrain by allowing the tenors to soar to a high F-sharp on the final “Noel,” giving it a sense of climax, while the soprano maintains the repetition throughout. Tenors look forward to taking the spotlight at that point, leaving the sopranos on the original tune that becomes a less interesting countermelody. See Stainer’s setting of the song in Christmas Carols New and Old (1850 edition) at the following link: https://archive.org/details/christ00bram/page/12/mode/2up. Then listen to the Staple Hill Salvation Army Band playing Stainer’s version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iznOSxywgo4.
English folksong collector Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) discovered another version (Sharp, 1914, 26–27), indicating the popularity of oral transmission and retelling the nativity narrative:
The repeated “Noel” (or “Nowell” in some hymnals) has the character of spreading the good news— “born is the King of Israel.” A final stanza, occasionally used in hymnals, draws all humanity into the story and extends the birth account to the story of salvation and Christ’s suffering. Though the use of “mankind” has probably limited its use in current hymnals, this stanza places the birth of Jesus into the fuller context of redemption:
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 has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.
Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, The New Book of Oxford Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Alan Luff, “The First Nowell the Angel Did Say.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/the-first-nowell-the-angel-did-say (accessed October 17, 2020).
Erik Routley, The English Carol (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1958).
William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard, Beckley, 1833). See the following link for the carol: https://archive.org/details/christmascarolsa00sandrich/page/74/mode/2up (accessed October 17, 2020).
Cecil J. Sharp, Frank Kidson, Lucy E. Broadwood, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and A.G. Gilchrist, “Carols,” Journal of the Folk-Song Society 5, no. 18 (January 1914), 1–30):
https://www.jstor.org/stable/4434000 (accessed October 17, 2020).
John Stainer, ed., Christmas Carols New and Old (London: Novello, Ewer and Co., 1850), https://archive.org/details/christ00bram/page/n3/mode/2up (accessed October 18, 2020).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.