The First Noel

Album: various (1833)


  • "The First Noel" ("The First Nowell") is a traditional English carol most likely from the 16th or 17th century, but possibly dating from as early as the 13th century. It appeared in Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823) and Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), edited by William Sandys.
  • The word Noel comes from the French word for "Christmas," from the Latin word natalis ("birthday").
  • The song details the events surrounding Jesus' birth and refers to the infant as the King of Israel. The Jews were awaiting the birth of a Messiah, a king sent by God to deliver His people as promised throughout the Old Testament. At the time of Jesus' birth, Israel was under Roman rule with King Herod at the throne, and the Judeans hoped their Messiah would claim authority and establish a perfect kingdom, among other feats. (Because Jesus did not fulfill this task, he is not considered the Messiah in Judaism.)

    The opening lyrics depict the Annunciation of the Shepherds from Luke 2:11-2 when an angel appears before the shepherds and announces, "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

    The shepherds did not, however, see the Star of Bethlehem as described in the song. The Magi (or Wise Men) from the East saw the star and took it as a sign the Messiah had been born. In Matthew 2:1-7, the Magi, hoping to pay respect to the newborn king, traveled to Jerusalem and inquired about the baby's whereabouts. (Herod didn't take the threat to his throne lightly and ordered the slaughter of all young males in Bethlehem, hoping to snuff out Jesus.) Some versions of the song conclude with the Magi following the star to Jesus' location and offering gifts of gold and myrrh and frankincense, (Matthew 2: 9-11) and celebrating him as a savior.
  • It's unlikely that Jesus' birth took place "on a cold winter's night that was so deep." Biblical scholars note that the shepherds, who are indeed sleeping in the fields with their sheep in Luke's account, would typically do so during the spring lambing season, and would otherwise find shelter for their flock under such frigid conditions. Also, Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census, which wasn't taken in winter due to the precarious traveling conditions. It's not certain how the December date was chosen, but some suggest it was meant to replace pagan winter celebrations.
  • Johnny Mathis included this on his popular 1958 album, Merry Christmas, the first of many holiday albums from the crooner. His version is a staple of many holiday playlists. Other notable covers came from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban, Pentatonix, and many more. It was even covered by The Brady Bunch in 1970.
  • Dolly Parton sang this on her 1990 TV special Christmas at Home, and it was featured on her holiday album that year, Home For Christmas.
  • Gabby Barrett sang the carol on CMA Country Christmas 2020. Her version reached #78 on the Hot 100 that year, the first time "The First Noel" had ever entered the chart.

Comments: 4

  • I Am from Somewhere That You Don't Need To KnowHi! "And to the earth it gave great light" doesn't have the right syllable count, is it accurate?
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn Christmas Day in 1965 Johnny Mathis appeared on the ABC-TV program 'Shindig!'; and he sang "Marshmallow World," "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer", "Winter Wonderland," "Carol Of The Bells"/"Ding Dong", "Sounds of Christmas", "I'll Be Home for Christmas", and "Oh Holy Night"...
    But he did perform "The First Noel"???
    R.I.P. Jimmy O'Neil {Shindig's host, 1940 - 2013} and John Royce Mathis will celebrate his 80th birthday come next September 30th {2015}.
  • Robert from .punta Gorde, Flhe and elvis would blo the place away with connie francis
  • Joan from Victorville, CaI think JOHNNY MATHIS is the greatest singer ever and could make any song sound good. Especially CHRISTMAS SONGS LIKE THIS ONE. He is truly "A CLASS ACT" a real fan Joan or Joanie
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