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A traditional English carol of Cornish origins, ‘The First Noel’ or ‘The First Nowell’ is a favourite around Christmastime, especially among younger choirs.
From the Choir of King’s College Cambridge to boy soprano ensemble Libera, many a choir of young voices have recorded the much-loved Christmas carol ‘The First Noel’, also spelled ‘The First Nowell’ (Nowell meaning ‘Christmas’ in Early Modern English, from the French ‘Noël’).
A traditional English carol of Cornish origins, it dates back to at least the 16th or 17th century, possibly even as early as the 13th century.
The combination of melody and lyrics was first published in the revised edition of Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823) edited by Davies Gilbert. 10 years later, its publication in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), compiled by William Sandys in London, helped it rise to prominence.
Today it is usually performed as a four-part hymn arrangement by English composer John Stainer, published in his Carols, New and Old (1871), with descant by David Willcocks. While it originally had nine stanzas, usually only five are sung today.
The carol refers to the events of Jesus’s birth told in the Bible, from the appearance of the angels to the shepherds told in Luke 2:11, to the arrival of the three wise men, which is the main focus of the text.
Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time
The First Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
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 wherever it went.
This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O’er Bethlehem it took it 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 has bought.