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Learn about the Christmas carol, "The First Noel"

"The First Noel," a traditional Christmas carol, is also known as "The First Nowell," or "The First Noël." It originates from the Early Modern period. The word Noel is the "Early Modern" synonym of Christmas. The French version of the carol is titled as "Aujourd' hui le Roi des Cieux."

"The First Noel" old publication 1879

Origin

"The First Noel" is regarded to be of Cornish origin. It bloomed at a time when the Medieval civilization of Europe was experiencing "Proto-Renaissance," with the timeline presumed to be between the 13th or 14th century. The story portrayed in the carol was inspired by the dramatizations of "Miracle Plays," famous Bible stories of that time. It portrays the story of "Noel" or "Jesus," depicting the night of his birth in Bethlehem. The Medieval poetry of that time was predominantly crafted to be sung. So, it is widely deduced that the tune of "The First Noel" is older, and is presumably French or English.              

Musical Overview

The anatomy of the carol bears stark resemblance with medieval French poems, which ironically were never recorded. "The First Noel" was first transcribed in 1823, and was subsequently published as a part of an anthology titled "Some Ancient Christmas Carols," in London. In 1833, the carol was published in "Gilbert and Sandys Carols." Williams Sandys arranged and edited the carol, while Davies Gilbert pitched in with additional lyrics. Gilbert is also credited for the revival of the song in modern times. 

In 1929, the English version also made an appearance in the "The Cornish Songbook." In modern times, "The First Noel" is performed utilizing a 4 part hymn arrangement created by John Stainer, who first published it in 1871. Variations of this theme are also included in the "Carol Symphony" by Victor Hely-Hutchinson. Various French artists have covered the carol, while the French version has been made popular by Church choirs.  

Usage in Popular Culture 

Mini reindeer, baby santa shoes

  • In 1968, Mahalia Jackson crafted her own passionate and powerful version of the carol.  
  • In 1970, it was featured in the popular sitcom, "The Brady Bunch."
  • In 1985, "The First Noel" appeared twice in the movie "Brazil," directed by Terry Gilliam.  
  • Over the decades, Bryan Duncan has become a staple in Christmas music, and his rendition of "The First Noel" delivers a silky and smooth take on the classic melody.  
  • "Aly & AJ" also created a version of the carol, maintaining the sincerity and joy of the original version. 
  • The "New Life Community Choir" and John P. Kee collaborated to craft a version of the carol is bound to tingle one's senses with its magnificent melody.    
  • The Christian musical group "Newsong" crafted their own phenomenal cover of the carol for their album, "The Christmas Shoes." 
  • In 1993, CeCe Winans and BeBe Winans collaborated to create a masterful version of the carol that oozes a palpable sense of suspense, keeping the listeners on their tenterhooks. The part before the Angels chant "Born is the King of Israel," is especially breathtaking. 
  • In 2003, BeBe Winans crafted another solo version of the carol, elevating it to greater heights.  
  • The Stephen Green version of "The First Noel" offers a touch of modern rock.  
  • Randy Travis also crafted his own version of the carol, integrating the classic melody with "country sound." 
  • The rock band "Third Day" created their own awe-inspiring cover of the carol, which they recorded and performed live. 
  • The Oak Ridge Boys utilized "The First Noel" in Christmas medley, incorporating it alongside other legendary Christmas classics.  

Methodist Influence

Methodism, which aided the Methodist denomination of Protestant Christianity, also aided to the popularity of the carol. Singing and musical influence were especially prominent in English areas where the Methodist movement was in full swing, especially during the festive season. In Cambridge, "The First Nowell" was anointed as the final hymn in the first service of the "Nine Lessons and Carols" in 1918.

In 1958, the carol again became famous after being featured in Johnny Mathis's popular album titled, "Merry Christmas." Other notable modern-day covers include Pentatonix, Josh Groban, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra.     

A Sign of Hope

The journey of "The First Noel" very likely started in the streets outside churches, and was subsequently passed along through Catholic masses. The melody is unique, consisting of one musical phrase which is subsequently repeated twice. The repetitions are succeeded by a refrain, which itself is a variation of the original musical phrase. All phrases conclude on a "3rd of the scale." A conjectural calibration of its earlier melody is recorded in the" New Oxford Book of Carols."      

The carol depicts a detailed narrative of the birth of Christ, a messiah who the Jews hoped would turn around their fortunes. They crave salvation. The repetition of the word "Noel" is depicted as an equivalent to wishing someone "Happy Birthday," as the word originates from Latin "Natalis." The melody of "The First Noel" is absolutely glorious and grabs the listeners by the heart. The score of the carol, a concoction of jazz, gospel, and pop, is the beating pulse that has duly become an annual festive tradition.