The First Noël - A Christmas Revival

The First Noël

The popular Christmas Carol, The First Noël, is believed to date from the 13th or 14th century, a time in which all medieval civilization in Europe was springing to life. The inspiration for the story of the song comes from dramatizations of favorite Bible stories for holidays, which were called the Miracle Plays, and were very popular during this time. It tells the story of the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, based on the Gospel accounts in Luke 2 and Matthew 2.

Noël is the French word for Christmas and is from the Latin natalis, meaning "birthday." Most medieval poetry was written to be sung, so it is presumed that the words were written with an existing tune in mind. This makes the tune to the song even older, and is likely English or French.

A Revival of Christmas Carols

At the beginning of the 19th century, the singing of Christmas carols was dying out in England. It is Davies Gilbert who is credited with initiating a revival of sorts. 'The First Nowell' was first published in Gilbert's Some Ancient Christmas Carols in 1823. He took it from a manuscript of Cornish carols made around 1817, and are today available in the County Record Office in Truro, England.

Ten years later, a man named William Sandys was concerned that the celebration of Christmas was 'on the wane.' His action that changed this was to compile a collection of carols in order to preserve them. Sandys' collection of Christmas Carols begins with a history of the Christmas celebration, followed by a total of 80 carols. It is here that The First Noël was first published with words by Sandys in his 1833 edition of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.

All subsequent versions of The First Noël have been based on the version found in Sandys' collection. The Methodist denomination of Christianity also helped to spread the song. In the areas of England where Methodism was strongest, music and singing were prominent, especially during Christmas time. And so The First Noël spread throughout the land by way of Methodist churches. By 1918 at the first service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Cambridge, 'The First Nowell' was chosen as the final hymn, being sung by the congregation alone.

The First Noël

The first Noel the angel 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.

And by the light of that same star
three Wise Men came from country far;
to seek for 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.

I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.
Psalms 13:6

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

  Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by
  The Penguin Book of Carols edited by

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The First Noël - A Christmas Revival

  • Justin
    This article is a nice little gift for the upcoming Christmas season.
  • Thomas Banda
    The song touches my life day by day and I needed musical copy of the same (notation). Thanx
  • Maria
    thanks NOEL! I pick a theme for Christmas each year and this is it for 2019. Christmas is everyday - as Jesus is with us everyday, renewing us with his love! Noel! Maria
  • Wake
    Great choice! True that Jesus is with us every day, not only around Christmas. Merry Christmas Maria
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