Choir Notes

The First Noel
From Music and the Spoken Word
Delivered By: Lloyd D. Newell

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. The sights and sounds stir within us a sense of excitement—and of reverence. As we jubilantly sing the songs of the season, we think of all that is good about Christmas: the renewed hope, goodwill, and good cheer that typify this time of the year.

Many of our favorite songs of the season are lively and vigorous, stirring our souls with joyous exultation. Others are more peaceful, evoking the sweet simplicity of the season. Their soft and gentle refrains, almost like lullabies, carry a quiet but penetrating message that resonates deep within us. One of those is the centuries-old familiar carol “The First Noel.”

The song is simple and reverent—much as that birth so sacred of 2,000 years ago must have been. The beloved words and tune transport us to that most special of all nights:
The first Noel 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. 

Noel is originally a French word related to the Latin natalis, which means “birthday.” Today, of course, noel connotes not just any birthday but a birthday that would change the world and everything in it; a birthday that, for much of the world, reset the calendar, marks time, and is celebrated still today.

Over time, the word noel has come to refer both to Christmas and, more specifically, to Christmas music. “The First Noel,” then, is a song about the first Christmas carol—the one sung by a choir of angels to humble shepherds gathered in a lonely field outside of Bethlehem. We can only imagine what their glorious music sounded like, but in a sense, our carols today are each an echo of that first noel. Whether it’s our own rousing declaration of “glory to God in the highest” or a gentle affirmation of peace on earth and “good will toward men,” we humbly join the angels in singing praises to the newborn King.

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