History of Hymns: “The First Noel”

by C. Michael Hawn

The First Nowell - first stanza sheet music

"The First Nowell"
in Carols, New and Old (1879)

The First Noel
Anonymous, Traditional English Carol;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 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 carol folk tradition was employed at other high seasons of the Christian Year, including Holy Week and Easter. Although Christmas carols are sung 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 nonliturgical gatherings and spread through oral tradition. In their earliest forms, they 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 Nicene Creed was shaped, defining the nature of Christ in what became orthodox theology. These early Latin hymns 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 ex Parentis” (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 184) is one of the most famous hymns from the orthodox perspective that is still sung. The Spanish judge Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (b. c. 348–d. c. 413) left a legacy for the church’s sung faith that has lasted for centuries. (See History of Hymns: "Of the Father's 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,” 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. 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 hymn writer Carl P. Daw, Jr. indicates, The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest use of “nowel” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1395), where the poet cites “The Franklin’s Tale” (1255): “And ‘Nowel’ crieth every lusty man.”

“The First Noel” probably extends back to the eighteenth century in its oral form, but it was published first in Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823), compiled by Davies Gilbert in London. It appeared originally in nine stanzas, five of which are common in most hymnals. 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 an overall feeling of Epiphany.

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. This version of the tune was transcribed from Cornwall in 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 musical 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.

Perhaps 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. Furthermore, Cornwall, on the southeastern tip of England, is on the English Channel directly across northern France. 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.

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 is essentially repeated two times for each stanza plus the refrain. 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. See the song in Christmas Carols New and Old (1879 edition). Hear the Staple Hill Salvation Army Band playing Stainer’s version at

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 salvation narrative to Christ’s suffering. Although 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.


About this Week's Writer

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns