“The First Noel” has a seemingly simple message – yet, at the same time, it is the most significant and awe-inspiring message the world has ever heard: Jesus, our Saviour, is born! The Son of God has come to redeem the world from sin and to teach us what we need to know to return to live with him.
“The First Noel” tells of a humble birth proclaimed by angels sent from the realms of glory – so perhaps not such a humble birth after all! A new star lit the night sky. This most significant birth was hidden in a humble place. The shepherds (and wise men) had to search for him. Over two thousand years later, we still have to search – we have to seek him out. We search his word and we seek his answers for us.
History of “The First Noel”
“Every year, people sing songs like “The First Noel” at Christmas, and many wonder what a “noel” is. In French, joyeux noel means “Merry Christmas.” Our modern English word comes from the Middle English nowel, which Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined as “a shout of joy or Christmas song.” The roots of the word are the French noel (“Christmas season”), which may come from the Old French nael. This, in turn, is derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “birth.” Since Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, it was natural for people to refer to the celebration as the “nativity” or the “birth.”
Another possible root for noel, also from the French, is the word nouvelles, meaning “news.” As the popular carol says, “The first noel the angels did say / Was to certain poor shepherds. . . .” The meaning of “news” certainly makes sense in that context; however, the early usage and definition of noel seem to focus more on the idea of birth, and that is probably the more accurate meaning.
There are very few records giving the details of the earliest Christmas practices, but at least as early as the 4th century, some Christian groups were celebrating natus Christus on December 25. Since their almanac referred to the day as “the birth of Christ,” it would be natural to see derivative words like nael and noel used in the same way.
In the Middle Ages, several English carols began with nowell, and French carols similarly used noel. Since early songs often used the first word as the title, a “noel” came to refer to any song about the birth of Christ. Because of this, the word now carries the dual meaning of a Christmas song and the Christmas celebration itself.
Our English carol “The First Noel” was first published in a book titled Carols Ancient and Modern, edited by William Sandys in 1823. The message of the song is the joyous pronouncement that the King of Israel has been born. When we sing the song or wish someone a joyous noel, we are following the example of the angels, announcing the good news that Jesus Christ was born, not just for Israel, but for all mankind, so we could receive forgiveness of sins through Him” (What is the Meaning of Noel? https://gotquestions.org/Noel-meaning.html).
When “The First Noel” was first published in 1823, it contained nine stanzas. We use only the first two in our LDS hymnal. Three of the later stanzas continue the story with a description of the wise men:
“And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from country far;
To seek a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest,
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right over the place where Jesus lay.
Then entered in those wise men three,
Full reverently upon the knee,
And offered there, in his presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.”
(Davidson: Our Latter-Day Hymns, p. 225)
Clearly, we do not include these verses in our hymnal since we know the wise men did not visit Jesus in the stable, but were witnesses of his safe arrival at a later time in another place.
Congregation Choir Arrangements
Our Congregation Choir arrangements add a beautiful, alternate accompaniment to the original SATB found in the hymnbook. This alternate accompaniment could be used with the SATB as a piano/organ duet accompaniment for the entire congregation or for a large choir. It could also be used alone as a more embellished accompaniment for a solo singer or group, or just to enjoy as a piano solo.
The vocal and flute countermelodies demonstrated here provide an exciting, additional layer to the hymn. Such a tremendous message, from angels no less, deserves a high and beautiful “angelic” layer.
Listen to our arrangements below. You will first hear just the organ doing the introduction. The piano joins in on the first verse and then the countermelody (vocal in one; flute in the other) joins in for the second demonstration verse.
With vocal countermelody. PURCHASE HERE.
With flute (or violin) countermelody. PURCHASE HERE.
The joy of the Christmas season is still here in our hearts over two thousand years later, yet its message is one that is becoming more muted in the world around us. The wondrous message of the birth of the Saviour of the world is one that we must proudly proclaim, in word, deed and song. We must carry forth that simple yet significant message the angels first proclaimed to shepherds on a hillside outside Bethlehem, that it will not be forgotten: “Born is the King of Israel!”