Today’s devotional is by Danny Roberts
‘The First Noel’ is one of the oldest Christmas hymns we sing today, originally dating back to the 15th century. The author of the carol is unknown as songs at the time were simply recited in oral form, not written down. Regrettably, this means that the names of the creators of many wonderful old songs and hymns have unfortunately been lost to us.
Telling the story of the birth of Christ in song has been an important tradition, especially in the western church. Since congregational participation, including singing, was very limited in the medieval days of church, songs were developed outside the church. Undoubtedly, carols existed in oral forms long before being published in collections.
The first question is, “What does ‘Noel’ mean?” ‘Nowell’, the English transliteration, comes from the old French 'Nouel’ (or ‘Noël’ in modern French). The derivation of this word probably relates to the earlier Latin term 'natalis’ or ‘birth’. In Latin, 'Dies natalis’ means 'birthday’. Some suggest that 'Noel’ is also related to 'novellare’ or 'nouvelle’, meaning new or something to tell.
‘The First Noel’ first appeared in written form in a Methodist broadsheet in Cornwall! It originally had nine verses but today most hymn books have five. Though the angels appearance to the shepherds (Luke 2:1–20) is the subject of the first stanza, most of the carol focuses on the journey of the magi (Matthew 2:1–12), giving the carol an Epiphany focus.
The carol appears to cause some controversy amongst the classical music fraternity, with many prominent composers, musicians and hymnologists saying it is possibly the worst melody of any Christmas carol ever! According to hymnologists, the melody of the song would be more familiar in European songs, specifically French. When bards would have told stories through songs on the streets of France, they would have used the repetitive melody associated with this carol. This makes sense when you remember that Cornwall is very close to France, so they would share similar styles, and also gives further speculation that the carol may have been written by a French composer.
The repeated 'Noel’ has the character of spreading the good news - “born is the King of Israel.” A final stanza, occasionally used in hymn books, draws all humanity into the story (as Isreal was seen at that time as the centre of the Christian world) and extends the birth account to the story of salvation and Christ’s suffering. Though the use of “mankind” has probably limited its use in current hymnals, this stanza places the birth of Jesus into the fuller context of redemption. Regardless of the melody or the origin, one thing we can agree on is that the words make this carol one that focuses us on Jesus and the true reason of why He came to earth.
I hope you have a joyful, reflective, happy Christmas.
“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 has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.”