This is part 21 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
We go from one of the newest carols in our series yesterday, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to one of the oldest today in the “The First Noel.” What is most interesting about this hymn isn’t the writer or even the era that produced the hymn, there are theories about both, but nothing definitive. What is most interesting is we have this hymn really because of tradition.
Not only do we not know who wrote the hymn, we really don’t even know what country produced the hymn as both England and France claim authorship. The spelling of the word Noel, in most of our most common uses would suggest France. In English speaking countries the word is often spelled Nowell. One reason I find that interesting is, I have lived all my life in the United States, but until the Christmas season, and the cantata our choir sang, at least that I can recall, I never saw the word Noel spelled any other way besides, Noel. In French the word is always spelled Noel.
Most scholars, however, do not believe the hymn to actually be of French origin, but English instead. Further, this was a folk song, a song of the people. The song was almost assuredly not written by clergy because there a Scriptural errors in the song. For example, when the angels appeared to the shepherds, the shepherds didn’t follow a star into Bethlehem to find the child, at least not in the Bible. The star was for the magi, not the shepherds. Yet the second verse of the song has the shepherds following the star. It is very unlikely that clergy would have made this error.
Additionally, the sentence structure would seem to indicate someone with little or no formal education. Many of the lines are just not what a trained lyricist like Charles Wesley.
The author of the hymn likely had no access to a Bible and because most Bibles were written in Latin and most common people illiterate a Bible would probably have had no real use in writing the hymn.
The hymn was first published in 1823 by William Sandys in his hymnal Carols Ancient and Modern. There is little doubt, however, that the carol is at least 300 years older. Today we most often sing “The First Noel” in a four part harmony arrangement by English composer John Stainer, published in 1871 in Carols New and Old.
The tradition that circles “The First Noel” actually has its roots in the Scandinavian tradition of the Yule Log. Once each year families would go out and chop down a tree, drag it back home, prune off the limbs and hollow out a section of log. They would then pack the log with spices, oils and other sweet smelling ingredients and burn it. They believed that families who burned the Yule Log would receive good luck for their household.
When Christianity came, the Yule Log became tied to Christmas. Eventually the wood of the log came to represent the cross of Jesus and the sweet ingredients, the blessed life of a believer. They lit the log on Christmas Eve and believed that if it burned through the twelve days of Christmas, the Christmas season, ending on January 6th. If the log lasted that long, the home would be blessed.
In England, “The First Noel” was sung by many peasants as they lit the Yule Log. Because of that tradition, “The First Noel” became the first song sung in the Christmas season.
For most of its history “The First Noel” was strictly a song of the people. Clergy of the era had a deep disdain for these carols, these folk tunes became the Christmas voice of the people.
What traditions surround your celebration of the birth of Christ?
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.