The Story Behind “The First Noel”


Like so many other Christmas songs “The First Noel” has mysterious beginnings in either France or England. It was a folk song that was written by and for the peasants hundreds of years ago. By the 19th century it made its way into the church, where so many of the carols that we sing today were banned and frowned upon, and became mainstream and popular.

The First Noel” is one of the few surviving early Christmas standards that can genuinely be earmarked as a folk song. Whoever was responsible for writing this carol was obviously incredibly enthusiastic about Christmas and fully understood the wonder of Christ’s birth, but didn’t have a full grasp on the Scriptures that told the story of that birth. During the Middle Ages, this was often the rule rather than the exception. When “The First Noel” was written, there were very few Bibles in circulation. Most were either in churches or monasteries and were written in Latin. Common people rarely saw a Bible in person, and even if they would have, they probably wouldn’t have been able to read the words in the sacred book, since most people living in those times were illiterate.

This was probably the case with the composer of “The First Noel.” With no ready Bible to guide him, the writer drew from the stories he had been told about the events of Christ’s birth. Most he recounted accurately, but he erred when he depicted the shepherds following the star to Christ’s birthplace. The Bible does not mention the star with the shepherds, only with the wise men.

During the middle ages the Viking custom of the Yule log became commonplace in England. It was basically the trunk of a tree that was hollowed out and filled with various spices and lit in the fireplace every year for good luck. Christians “baptized” this custom by reinterpreting the symbols from a biblical perspective.

In England, “The First Noel” was sung each year by many peasants as they lit the Yule log. Therefore, this became the song that started the entire Christmas season. Especially for children, this carol meant the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. Down through the ages, the tradition of the Yule log carried with it the music of this folk carol. Though its words and music were not written down, “The First Noel” survived…

“The First Noel” finally was published by William Sandys in 1833. A lawyer by trade, Sandys loved music and spent his spare time collecting both French and English folk songs. In his book on Christmas folk songs he included “The First Noel.” Already a favorite with the peasant class, by the mid–1800s, when the Church of England began to use new songs during services, “The First Noel” found universal acclaim.

One other thing I wanted to mention about the song is the meaning of Noel. I imagine most people don’t know it and have often wondered. It simply means “Christmas” and, unfortunately, I have no interesting story to mention about its origins.


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