Songs of Christmas…The First Noel

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This is part 21 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

We go from one of the newest carols in our series yesterday, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to one of the oldest today in the “The First Noel.” What is most interesting about this hymn isn’t the writer or even the era that produced the hymn, there are theories about both, but nothing definitive. What is most interesting is we have this hymn really because of tradition.

Not only do we not know who wrote the hymn, we really don’t even know what country produced the hymn as both England and France claim authorship. The spelling of the word Noel, in most of our most common uses would suggest France. In English speaking countries the word is often spelled Nowell. One reason I find that interesting is, I have lived all my life in the United States, but until the Christmas season, and the cantata our choir sang, at least that I can recall, I never saw the word Noel spelled any other way besides, Noel. In French the word is always spelled Noel.

Most scholars, however, do not believe the hymn to actually be of French origin, but English instead. Further, this was a folk song, a song of the people. The song was almost assuredly not written by clergy because there a Scriptural errors in the song. For example, when the angels appeared to the shepherds, the shepherds didn’t follow a star into Bethlehem to find the child, at least not in the Bible. The star was for the magi, not the shepherds. Yet the second verse of the song has the shepherds following the star. It is very unlikely that clergy would have made this error.

Additionally, the sentence structure would seem to indicate someone with little or no formal education. Many of the lines are just not what a trained lyricist like Charles Wesley.

The author of the hymn likely had no access to a Bible and because most Bibles were written in Latin and most common people illiterate a Bible would probably have had no real use in writing the hymn.

The hymn was first published in 1823 by William Sandys in his hymnal Carols Ancient and Modern. There is little doubt, however, that the carol is at least 300 years older. Today we most often sing “The First Noel” in a four part harmony arrangement by English composer John Stainer, published in 1871 in Carols New and Old.

The tradition that circles “The First Noel” actually has its roots in the Scandinavian tradition of the Yule Log. Once each year families would go out and chop down a tree, drag it back home, prune off the limbs and hollow out a section of log. They would then pack the log with spices, oils and other sweet smelling ingredients and burn it. They believed that families who burned the Yule Log would receive good luck for their household.

When Christianity came, the Yule Log became tied to Christmas. Eventually the wood of the log came to represent the cross of Jesus and the sweet ingredients, the blessed life of a believer. They lit the log on Christmas Eve and believed that if it burned through the twelve days of Christmas, the Christmas season, ending on January 6th. If the log lasted that long, the home would be blessed.

In England, “The First Noel” was sung by many peasants as they lit the Yule Log. Because of that tradition, “The First Noel” became the first song sung in the Christmas season.

For most of its history “The First Noel” was strictly a song of the people. Clergy of the era had a deep disdain for these carols, these folk tunes became the Christmas voice of the people.

What traditions surround your celebration of the birth of Christ?

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

Author:

Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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