The First Nowell ("The First Noel") is a traditional English carol thought to date from the 13th or 14th century. It first appeared in print in Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823), Davies Gilbert's collection of Carols sung in the West of England, and then in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), edited by William Sandys.
The version best known today is an arrangement by Sir John Stainer. His Christmas Carols New and Old, produced in collaboration with the Reverend H.R. Bramley, did much to shape Christmas traditions in the English-speaking world by reviving the English carol, a form of music which though popular in medieval times, had all but disappeared during the Protestant Reformation in the first half of the 16th century. Stainer was the organist and Bramley the chaplain at Magdalen College, Oxford, when their collection was published in 1871. Apart From "The First Nowell," their compilation also included Stainer's arrangements of what were to become the standard versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "I Saw Three Ships" and "Good King Wenceslas" among others.
The words Nowell and Noel come from the old French and Latin word Natalis meaning "belong to a birthday."