It’s well-titled; ”The First Noël’ is probably one of the very first songs about ‘Noël’ in the English language tradition. A traditional carol, it’s thought that the lyrics of ‘The First Noël’ existed in oral form as far back as the 1400s. In the 1700s, the lyrics were published in broadsides near Cornwall. In 1817, they were included in a manuscript of Cornish carols (today available in County Record Office in Truro, England). A transciption of the lyrics from this 1817 manuscript was first formally published by Davies Gilbert in his book Some Ancient Christmas Carols in 1823. Fun fact: there were originally nine verses in the song (of which only five are usually sung today).
In 1833, a solicitor called William Sandys was worried that the celebration of Christmas was ‘on the wane’ and in response to this, published a book of Christmas carols. This book included the first formal publication of the melody of ‘The First Noël’. Sandys’ version of the tune was transcribed from a Cornwall collection from 1827, and is similar to other tunes from the area.
The tune is noticeably repetitive. As such, there’s a theory that the music is heavily influenced by early French storytelling form. We know of around 80 epic poems in Old French from the 12th to 15th centuries; known as ‘chansons de geste’, they had lines of 10 or 12 syllables, had irregular rhyming stanzas, featured more assonance than rhyme, and were about 1,500 to 18,000 lines. The theme was generally heroic historical figures. Not much of the accompanying music survives, but we know that they repeated a simple melodic motif to tell the tale. Cornwall is on the English Channel directly across northern France. It’s highly likely that the ‘chansons de geste’ culture influenced the development of this carol, where the telling of the story supersedes melodic interest.
The first Noël, 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.
[Refrain]: Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël.
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;
O’er 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 in then for to see,
And found the babe in poverty.
Then enter’d in those wise men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offer’d there, in his presence,
Their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense.
Between an ox stall and an ass,
This child truly there born 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 nought,
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.
*’Noël’ is a French word meaning ‘the Christmas season’ which was adapted into early modern English as a synonym for ‘Christmas’.
“British Library”. 2022. Bl.Uk. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/christmas-carols-ancient-and-modern-by-william-sandys.
“Chansons De Geste: Songs Of Deeds”. 2022. Thoughtco. https://www.thoughtco.com/chansons-de-geste-1788872.
“History Of Hymns: ‘The First Noel'”. 2022. Discipleship Ministries. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-the-first-noel.
“The First Noel – Wikipedia”. 2022. En.Wikipedia.Org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_First_Noel.
Thomas. 2022. “The First Noël – A Christmas Revival”. Classic History. http://www.classichistory.net/archives/first-noel-carol.