Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him”… And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11)
Our current hymnals are the first ones I ever recall seeing feature “The First Noel,” though it seems that it has been published in The Methodist Hymnal for many years (among others). It is one of my favorite carols, but it is not a song that I had ever really thought about singing in the worship assembly before. On further reflection, there is no real reason for that feeling; there is nothing troubling about it doctrinally, though it does conflate the stories of the shepherds and the wise men. Perhaps that initial, visceral reaction all boils down to the difference between a carol and a hymn.
You probably know that from the very beginning of the church, Christians have been addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord (Eph 5:19). The Greek word translated hymn simply means “a song in praise of God.” The point here is not to distinguish particular types of music, but to comprehensively describe the content. You can see something of that in our songbooks when we find that we have accidentally turned to a song we thought we knew, but we find that the tune is completely unfamiliar: hymns can be in different musical settings because, properly speaking, a hymn is the text itself, not the melody or harmony. Thus we find that some hymns we still sing are very ancient indeed, focused as they are on imparting deep truths about God, his nature, and his works in the world, particularly in and through Christ.
Carols have a different origin. The word is derived from the Old French carole, a circle dance that was accompanied by singers. These were very popular during the High Middle Ages; ultimately, the types of songs sung came to be separated from the dances and used in festivals. While we associate carols with Christmas, this was a folk tradition linked to holidays throughout the Christian year. These were songs that would have been sung outside of church—especially since the medieval mass was very limited on congregational participation—and spread orally, used to transmit (semi)biblical teaching to the largely illiterate population of the day.
“The First Noel” emerged from this carol tradition. Its earliest certain attestation is 18th century Cornwall; it was not published until 1823 in Some Ancient Christmas Carols, edited by Davies Gilbert. But it is thought that its roots in the oral tradition go back at least to the 15th century, and perhaps even as early as the 1200s. It stands out for a couple of reasons: first, as was noted above, carols were originally sung throughout the year at various festival days, and this one, technically, is not connected to Christmas, but to Epiphany; second, the presence of this strange word “Noel.”
Let’s deal with the second one first. You probably know that “Noel” is the French word for Christmas; it’s likely, then, that it originated in northern France, just across the English Channel from Cornwall, which is located on the southwestern tip of Great Britain. (Indeed, some older folk versions of the song from Cornwall have it as “O well, O well, the angels did say…” because the unfamiliar “Noel” sounded a lot like “O well.”) But that still doesn’t explain what “Noel” actually means. Most argue that it is from the Latin word natalis—birth. Another possibility is related to the French nouvelle meaning “new”—that is, something to tell. In either case, the connection is clear: it’s a reference to the message of the angels to the shepherds in the field, with their news that unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:18).
Perhaps more interesting is that, while the first verse of the song references those shepherds— the first Noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay—the bulk of the song is concerned not with them, but with the magi who pursue the infant Jesus in Matthew 2. The next several verses are all concerned with seeing a star in the east and following it to the place where Jesus lay. As noted above, on the liturgical calendar, that is not Christmas, but Epiphany: January 6, the feast that commemorates the visit of the wise men.
Whether focused on them or the shepherds, though, the song invites us to appreciate the good news that the King of Israel has come. God is fulfilling his promises! He has done what he always said he would do! That’s a message that is worth singing about and thinking about, even if the two stories are a bit garbled. It’s unfortunate that most printed versions—including the one in our book—omit the final verse that drives it all home:
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
hat hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood our life hath bought.