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The First Noel: There were shepherds abiding in the field

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Hymns and carols were written by human beings and most by the inspiration of God’s Word. These were real people living in their own time and doing their own things.

While for centuries we have sung these Christmas carols, little thought is given to those who penned them and the reason why they have endured through the centuries.

The original version of “The First Noel” dates back to at least the 17th century. In 1823, William B. Sandys (1792-1874), and Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) edited and added lyrics to create the version we sing today. The origin of the current melody is uncertain.

While the origin of the song, “The First Noel” is unknown in origin it is generally thought to be English; some say dating back to the 16th century. There is a misconception that the first Noel was French and it is believed that because of the French spelling of Noel as opposed to the olde English Anglo-Saxon spelling of the word as in Nowell. After England was captured by the Normans numerous words were adopted from the Norman French Language and Noel was re-spelt as Nowell. Early printed version of this carol use the Nowell spelling.

“The First Noel” was first published n 1833 when it appeared in “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern,” a collection of seasonal carols gathered by Willim B. Sandys. It may have been sung for many years before it was published. Source:

“The publication of Sandy's 1823 book “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” has historical significance in that it was the first of its kind to include many of the songs we now consider classic Carols. Songs such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, “The First Nowell,” “I Saw Threes Ships Come Sailing In,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” had their public debut in this songbook.”

“In varied Christmas Carol books the song title will either read Noel, or Nowell. The English word Nowell is from the French word Noel, which means Christmas which is derived from the Latin word natalis which means birth.”

While most church hymnals only show four verses apparently there were many more to this song. Although these carol/hymns were good enough for people for centuries, it seems that they are being replaced more often by contemporary music and lyrics.

Many of the old carols have been brought back on the scene with a change in musical arrangements and to me that is a sacrilege. These old carols just seemed to have a bond between the lyrics and the music. In decades past, all one had to do was hear the tune and they immediately knew the carol and could not help but to hum or sing long - no matter where they heard it.

The First (Nowell) Noel

The First Noel, the Angels 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.

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.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

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.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel

Born is the King of Israel!

This star drew nigh to the northwest
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both Pause and stay
Right o'er the place where Jesus lay.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then entered in those Wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee
And offered there in His presence
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

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.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2:8-20

This is the third in a series of following beloved and favorite carol/hymns through the Christmas story.

The first was about the night: Silent Night

The second was about the town: O Little Town of Bethlehem

This one is about the announcement to the shepherds.

Prior to this series there was a series of exploring how Christmas was celebrated 100 years ago in:





French Canada:


You may wish to subscribe to Atlanta Faith and Family so that you will not miss a single article in a series. Use the subscribe tab above – it is free.

To all the readers over these past four and one-half years, I thank you and wish for you and yours a very wonderful Christmas celebration and a great New Year filled with love, health, joy and happiness.

Millions have listened to Carrie Underwood sing, "The First Noel" and you can too!



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