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The First Noel

Words and Music: Anonymous--17th century traditional English carol

Have you ever wondered where the word "noel" comes from? Some scholars claim "noel" is of French origin, meaning "a shout of joy" at the birth of Jesus. Others say that it stems from the medieval Latin word "natalis," meaning "birth," which explains why some people refer to Christmas as "His natal day." There is yet another Latin word that some claim as the accurate source of "noel," the word "novella," which means "news," which relates the idea that the news of Jesus' birth causes the shouts of joy associated with Christmas time.

However, other scholars say that the original is of English spelling, "nowell," rather than the French "noël." This could be another example of how the English language has changed down through the centuries.

For example, the English people took the parting phrase with which they bade one another "Fare thee well," and made it into one word, "Farewell." They also took the phrase "God be with you," and shortened the four words into one, the word "goodbye."

In the same way, if the word "nowell" was first a phrase instead of a word, perhaps it was something like "Now all is well!" The English forefathers greeted each other every Christmas morning with the cry "Now all is well," since God had regarded those who had walked in darkness by giving them a great Light--Jesus! Soon, "Now all is well" became merely "Now well," and was later further shortened to "Nowell."

If so, when the unknown poet who wrote "The First Noel" sat down to compose his story poem about the birth of Jesus sometime during the 17th century, perhaps he decided that the message of the angels to the shepherds, "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people" (Luke 2:10), was a message to remind us that "now all is well," for Christ is born in Bethlehem.

"The First Noel" has been a popular carol for almost three centuries, and is about the oldest familiar carol in the English language. It is noted for its simplicity and sincerity. After having been handed down by word of mouth for many generations, "The First Noel" was finally copied down with the stanzas properly polished, the tune correctly harmonized, and printed for the first time in a collection of Christmas carols published in 1833.

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