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Updated 01/21/2020

 

The First Noel

"The First Nowell" (also written "The First NoŽl" or "The First Noel") is of Cornish origin. Its current form was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833), both of which were edited by William Sandys and arranged, edited and with extra lyrics written by Davies Gilbert for Hymns and Carols of God. Nowell is an Early Modern English synonym of "Christmas" from French NoŽl "the Christmas season", ultimately from Latin natalis [dies] "[day] of birth". The word was regularly used in the burden of carols in the middle ages towards the early modern period; Sir ChristŤmas, "Nowell sing we now all and some" and "Nowel - out of youre slepe arise and wake" being 15th century examples.

The melody is unusual among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a refrain which is a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale.

The Annunciation to the shepherds and the Adoration of the shepherds are episodes in the Nativity of Jesus described in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2). The Star of Bethlehem appears in the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew; it does not appear in the story of the shepherds.

 

In common with many traditional songs and carols the lyrics vary across books.

Lyrics

  New English Hymnal

The first Nowell the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep:
Refrain
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star,
Shining in the east, beyond them far:
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night:

And by the light of that same star,
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star whersoever it went:

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay:

Then entered in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence,
Their
gold and myrrh and frankincense:

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 hath bought:

Cornish Songbook

O well, O well, the Angels did say
To shepherds there in the fields did lay;
Late in the night a-folding their sheep,
A winter's night, both cold and bleak.
Refrain
O well, O well, O well, O well,
Born is the King of Israel.

And then there did appear a Star,
Whose glory then did shine so far:
Unto the earth it gave a great light,
And there it continued a day and a night.

And by the light of that same Star,
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek a King was their intent -
They follow'd the Star wherever it went.

The Star went before them unto the North West,
And seemed o'er the City of Bethlehem to rest,
And there did remain by night and by day,
Right over the place where Jesus Christ lay.

Then enter'd in these Wise Men three,
With reverence fall on their knee,
And offer'd up in His presence
The gifts of gold and frankincense.

'Tween an ox manger and an ass,
Our Blest Messiah's place it was;
To save us all from bond and thrall,
He was a Redeemer for us all!

Carols Old and Carols New

The first Noel, the angels say
To Bethlehem's shepherds as they lay.
At midnight watch, when keeping sheep,
The winter wild, the light snow deep.
Refrain
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel.

The shepherds rose, and saw a star
Bright in the East, beyond them far,
Its beauty gave them great delight,
This star it set now day nor night.

Now by the light of this bright star
Three wise men came from country far;
They sought a king, such their intent,
The star their guide where'er it went.

Then drawing nigh to the northwest,
O'er Bethlehem town it took its rest;
The wise men learnt its cause of stay,
And found the place where Jesus lay.