The First Noel: A History

This week I’d like to talk about another favorite Christmas carol, The First Noel.

The origin of the melody is unknown, although historians know the tune dates back to at least the 17th century. Some even argue it originated in France during the 15th century and was brought to England in the 17th century by troubadours (Medieval French poets/improvisers. Read more here). In 1823, English publisher William Sandys (pronounced “Sands”) and Davies Gilbert (British engineer, author, and politician) edited/arranged/added lyrics to the melody and published the song in their book Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (a collection of Christmas carols Sandys had gathered and possibly improvised). This book was the first to premier many of the modern “classic” Christmas songs, such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Noel, I Saw Threes Ships Come Sailing In, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. 

Fun fact: “Noel” is a French word related to the Latin word natalis, which means “birthday”.

*The featured image of this post is a scan of “The First Nowell” in Carols, New and Old published in 1879 by Henry Ramsden Bramley (English clergyman and hymnologist – one who studies hymns).

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