The First Noel (Advent 11-2014)

I have been wrong a lot in my life.  I had always thought that The First Noel was French because Noël sounded French and had the dieresis above the letter ë like the French sometimes do.  I guess I was naïve.  A lot of carols were French after all, including the Cantique de Noël.  But not The First Noël.

The First Noel is a traditional English carol, of Cornish origin apparently.  It is well known, having been brought again to public attention in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) by William Sandys whose book offered the first appearance of traditional English carols such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, I Saw Three Ships, and yes, The First Noel during the Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday.

Perhaps this is where the confusion arose.  Many people have thought that The First Noel is much older, even back to the 13th century.  Why?  Largely due to writers such as Charles Dickens, for whom the revival of Christmas was steeped in a nostalgia of uncertain origin, even from within the mind of the writer himself.  Books like A Christmas Carol (1843), looked back on the past and encouraged child-centric reminiscing in many Christmas traditions.  In such an environment, these hymns developed reputations for being sixteenth century or even earlier as Christmases past were romantically rewritten.

In the minds of writers who wanted the dream-like Christmas of the imaginary childhood, the Christmas narrative of England was in need of fixing.  You see, they were living in the aftermath of the time Christmas had been publically banned.

According to Time-travel Britain here’s reality:

In January 1645 parliament enlisted the help of a group of ministers to create a Directory of Public Worship establishing a new organisation of the church and new forms of worship that were to be adopted and followed in both England and Wales…

As well as disliking the waste and debauchery that went along with the celebration of Christmas, the Puritans viewed the festival (Christ’s mass) as an unwanted remnant of the Roman Catholic Church and, therefore, a tool of encouragement for the dissentient community that remained in both England and Wales. They argued that nowhere in the Bible had God called upon his people to celebrate the nativity in this manner. They proposed a stricter observance of Sundays, the Lord’s Day, along with banning the immoral celebration of Christmas — as well as Easter, Whitsun and saints’ days. Preferring to call the period Christ-tide, and thus removing the Catholic ‘mass’ element, the Puritans reasoned that it should remain only as a day of fasting and prayer.

The Victorian Web goes on to describe how Christmas had become, for a period of time, a non-holiday:

Christmas, with its apparently timeless customs and traditions, often seems to have been around forever. However, as late as the 1820s, the writer Leigh Hunt labeled it an event “scarcely worth mention,” (Qtd in Pimlott, 85), and it was widely believed that the holiday, both in England and throughout Europe and North America, was destined to die out. Banned under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas in England was restored with the monarchy in 1660, where it appears to have flourished as an increasingly less and less religious event. Nonetheless, by the 1800s, it had shrunk almost beyond recognition. In the 1840s, holidays observed by governmental departments had decreased from roughly a week in 1797 to just Christmas day itself (Pimlott, 77). But in a remarkable turn of events, under the Victorians Christmas flourished to an extent unprecedented in earlier centuries. This reemergence during the nineteenth-century gave birth to many of the traditions that are today indistinguishable from the holiday itself. Christmas trees, cards, dinners, presents, and carols are all either products of, or were revived during, the Victorian period.

Christmas, a less and less religious event.  Does that sound like today, or what?

The theology of The First Noel is right out of Scripture and the inclusion of “Born is the King of Israel” and pointing to the Crucifixion are both helpful in filling in the Christmas story.

That said, the timing is inaccurate.  Here we have introduced—taught through song—the notion that the Three Wise Men came to our nativity scenes with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.   In reality, the un-numbered Magi (aka 3 Wise Men) didn’t show up until later…in the unromanticized version we see in the Bible where Jesus is at home already.  Not in the manger.

Matthew 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The gold, incense, and myrrh would come in very handy to fund the family’s escape to Egypt, demonstrating that where God sends, He also aims to provide.  So the timing on God’s part was perfect.  Sandys’ was a little off.

Furthermore, in the final verses less commonly included in our hymnals we see perpetuated the belief that our good works contribute to our salvation when they do not.  There is also a hint at universal salvation when that doesn’t happen either.  So most hymnals leave that verse out.

Still, the carol is among the best known and favorite hymns of Christmas.  It’s been performed in many different genres from jazz to choral to pop to gospel to classical.  To prove my point, enjoy these versions by

Thought Focus for Today: How has the true meaning of Christmas disappeared in favor of traditions?  How might we regain the Christmas story from within our traditions?

The first Noel the angel did say

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;

In fields where they lay tending their sheep,

the first noelOn a cold winter’s night that was so deep.


Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,

Born is the King of Israel.

They lookèd 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,

Over Bethlehem it took its rest;

And there it did both stop and stay,

Right over the place where Jesus lay.


 Then did they know assuredly

Within that house the King did lie;

One entered it them for to see,

And found the Babe in poverty.


Then entered in those Wise Men three,

Full reverently upon the knee,

And offered there, in His presence,

Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.


Between an ox stall and an ass,

This Child truly there He was;

For want of clothing they did Him lay

All in a manger, among the hay.


Then let us all with one accord

Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;

That hath made Heaven and earth of naught,

And with His blood mankind hath bought.


If we in our time shall do well,

We shall be free from death and hell;

For God hath prepared for us all

A resting place in general.



Carol Me, Christmas (2014 Advent Devotional Series) began November 30th.  By way of reminder, if you haven’t signed up yet, you can receive these devotional studies in your email throughout Advent 2014 by entering your email address on the home page in the space provided in the sidebar.  Or “Like” the SeminaryGal Facebook page to access them there.  If you like these devotionals, I’d really appreciate your letting others know so I can continue to spread the Good News far and wide.  Blessings to you, in Christ always, Barbara <><

Categories Articles and Devotionals, Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on December 10, 2014

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