The First Noel – The Christmas Song With The French Name

Being a song that was passed down orally, The First Noel may date to the 13th or 14th century. Some believe the song was inspired by a dramatization of the Christmas Story where actors would act out vignettes as they sang. The song does tell the story of Jesus’ birth from Matthew 2 and Luke 2, and would have worked well as a dramatized song with a repeating chorus. 

The word “Noel” is French for “Christmas” which is derived from the Latin word “Natalis,” meaning “Birthday.” Even though “Noel” works well for the chorus of The First Noel, it’s strange to consider that when the ancient singers arrived at the chorus of each verse that they were simply singing, “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas….” 

The First Noel was first published by Davies Gilbert in 1823 in Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Ten years later, William Sandys published the song in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern increased the popularity and prominence of the carol. The song originally had nine stanzas, but five are most commonly used today. In most recordings, artists rarely perform more than two or three verses which is a shame because it causes people to miss out on the story of the song. Though the angels appear to the shepherds in the first verse, most of the carol focuses on the journey of the wise men, giving the carol an Epiphany focus. The fourth verse is one of my favorites: 

“This Star drew nigh to the Northwest; O’er Bethlehem it took it’s rest.

And there it did both stop and stay, Right over the place where Jesus lay.”

Click here to read all nine verses of The First Noel.

Click here to hear Claire Crosby and Family sing The First Noel

*Image courtesy of Jon Tyson and Unsplash
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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – The Christmas Carol That Angered Scrooge

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is one of the oldest Christmas carols still popular. It was most likely first published in 1760 but it was centuries old by this time. The lyrics, sung in a minor key, center around the joy experienced at the news of Christ’s birth – Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy!”

The first line is unusual to modern English speakers because it’s not a phrase we typically use. Different sources give different meanings for the first phrase of the song. However, most commonly, the word “rest” is translated as “keep” and the word “merry” is translated as “harmony” or “in harmony.” With this understanding, “God Rest Ye Merry” probably really means something like “May God keep you in peace” or “God keep you in harmony.

The Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen even made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol when Scrooge terrifies carolers with his foul temper: 

“At the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

It’s interesting that Scrooge attacks the carolers as they are singing the very lyrics he most needs to hear – “Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.” As the song states, regardless of social class or distinction, the love and power that exists in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is far greater than anything that could possibly disturb or dismay us. If only Scrooge would have heeded the words to the song, he could have saved himself from a very disturbing evening.

Click here to hear God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Rend Collective

*Image courtesy of S&B Vonlanthan and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com 

The Christmas Carol That Was Sampled (possibly) by an 80’s Rock Band

Adeste Fideles, is a Latin hymn which is translated O Come, All Ye Faithful. The official authorship has been given to John Francis Wade (1711-1786), whose name is included on most if not all of the earliest manuscripts. Even so, the lyrics and tune appear to be the result of a collaboration of several people over hundreds of years, although what we sing today is a 19th century version of an 18th century compilation.

Some believe that Adeste Fideles is not actually about Christ, but is instead about Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, England’s last Catholic king. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie led a rebellion to restore the Catholic House of Stuart to the English throne. Fideles is believed to mean Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is also believed to be a term for England. If this is true, the song is actually a war cry shouting out, “Come and Behold Him, Born the King of the English.” 

More recently, others believe that the 1980’s rock band Twisted Sister sampled the melody of their biggest hit, We’re Not Gonna Take It from O Come, All Ye Faithful. The melodies of the songs are very similar, but it’s purely coincidental. Jay Jay French, lead guitarist of Twisted Sister stated in a radio interview that the band discovered the similarities and recorded a version of O Come, All Ye Faithful for their Christmas album A Twisted Christmas. 

I suppose I can ignore the possibility of O Come, All Ye Faithful having its origins with Bonnie Prince Charlie if it results in a song that God can use to get a rock group like Twisted Sister to sing “O Come, Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!”

Click here to hear Adeste Fideles by Andrea Bocelli

Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Tasha Cobbs

Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Twisted Sister 

*Image courtesy of Gareth Harper and Unsplash.

The Christmas Carol Written From Personal Experience

Pastor Phillips Brooks was a staunch abolitionist, which is probably why he was asked to speak at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. However, he is most remembered for writing the lyrics to the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Shortly after the American Civil War, Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land which extended through the Christmas holidays. On Christmas Eve, Brooks traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback so he could attend a service in Constantine’s ancient basilica, built over the potential site of the Nativity. Of his journey, Brooks reported: “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been.”

It was here, in the fields outside Bethlehem that Brooks first conceived of the phrase: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.” Several years later, Brooks finally completed the song and asked Lewis Redner, his organist, to write the music. The song was first performed by the children’s choir of their church. It wasn’t long before the song was included in hymnals worldwide.

Even though Phillips Brooks and his wife never had children of their own, they had a great love for children. Later in life, they met and ministered to young Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf. Brooks explained the gospel of Jesus to Keller for the first time. Keller, through her teacher and translator Anne Sullivan, said, “I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known His name.”

Even though the third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem was written long before Helen Keller met Phillips Brooks, it shares what the joy of salvation might have felt like to her:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. 

Click here to hear O Little Town of Bethlehem performed by Chris Tomlin.

*Image courtesy of Travis on Unsplash