The First Noel – The Christmas Carol 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 its rest.

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

Merry Christmas.

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 Jamie Street

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: The Ancient Christmas Carol That Ushers In Christmas Communion

When I was a child, to feign off boredom in church, I used to thumb through the hymnals. Once, when I was visiting a friend’s church, I came across the Christmas hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Tired of people telling me to be quiet, I moved on. The next time I remember hearing the song, I was in college. I borrowed my friend’s Cynthia Clawson Hymnsinger cassette tape (Ok, so I’m old) and listened to the song multiple times. I found it mysterious and even somewhat haunting, but honestly, I paid little attention to the lyrics.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence is one of the oldest Christmas hymns still in use. It’s based on the Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn in the Liturgy of St. James. This liturgy was thought to be the work of James, the brother of Jesus, but now it’s believed that it was written during the 4th century and is often referred to as the Liturgy of Jerusalem.

Using portions of the Psalms, Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence compels the worshipers to engage in welcoming the Incarnation of Christ and gain a sense of actually entering into the Holy of Holies. Obviously, it was written from the perspective that the bread and wine actually transform into the body and blood of Jesus during communion. To add to the dramatic flair, It was sung as the communion bread and wine were carried into the place of worship. 

During the liturgy, the leader would say, “We remember the sky, the earth and the sea, the sun and the moon, the stars and all creation both rational and irrational, the angels and archangels, powers, mights, dominations, principalities, thrones, the many-eyed Cherubim who say those words of David: ‘Praise the Lord with me.’ We remember the Seraphim, whom Isaias saw in spirit standing around the throne of God, who with two wings cover their faces, with two their feet and with two fly; who say: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabbath.’ We also say these divine words of the Seraphim, so as to take part in the hymns of the heavenly host.”

No matter your stance on what happens to the bread and wine (or juice) during communion, it is easy to see how this Christmas hymn would enhance the worship experience of these ancient Christian worshipers. What better way to celebrate the birth of our Savior than to focus on his life’s purpose of giving His life, His blood, His body for us. 

Check out the lyrics written below.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;

Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His hand

Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lord, in human vesture – in the body and the blood.

He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way, 

As the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,

That the pow’rs of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph, cherubim, with sleepless eye,

Veil their faces to the Presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry,

“Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, Lord most high!”

Click here to hear Cynthia Clawson’s short arrangement of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Click here to heard the full version by Fernando Ortega

*Image courtesy of Dan Kiefer

The Friendly Beasts – The Christmas Carol About the Animals in the Nativity Story

Over the years, I’ve heard hundreds of Christmas carols and songs. I’ve sung in dozens of Christmas choirs and even directed multiple Christmas musicals. To top things off, last year I started blogging about the origins of Christmas Carols. I asked my social media friends to submit their favorite Christmas carols for me to research. When numerous people submitted The Friendly Beasts, I thought it was a joke because I was totally unfamiliar with the song. Fans of Garth Brooks, Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, and Harry Belafonte were not impressed.

The Friendly Beasts originated in 12th century France, probably by Pierre de Corbeil who was the Bishop of Sens. The melody of the donkey portion was originally sung during the Fete de l’Ane or Festival of the Donkey. Instead of focusing on the birth of Jesus, this festival actually focused on the holy family’s flight to Egypt. During the Catholic mass for this festival, a donkey was often ridden or led into the church building. 

Over the years, the festival shifted from the Holy family’s flight into Egypt to Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. As time passed, The Friendly Beasts featured verses highlighting the cow, the sheep, the doves, and the camel. As Jesus is born, each of the “friendly beasts” experience a magical event where they are each able to sing about the gifts they are offering to Jesus: 

The donkey gave transportation for Mary to Bethlehem

The cow gave its manger as a place for Jesus to sleep

The sheep gave their wool for a warm coat.

The doves coo the baby Jesus to sleep.

The camel carried the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus

Some connect this song to old beliefs that all animals have the gift of speech at midnight on Christmas Eve. One comment I read said, “If God gave Balaam’s donkey the ability to speak (Numbers 22), why wouldn’t he do the same to the animals of the Nativity? Exploring this would be a post (if not a research paper) of its own. I understand that the story is more legendary than biblical. But, it’s still a sweet notion to think that the animals in the stable were able to participate in honoring Jesus at his birth. 

It also brings to mind Psalm 148:7-13 – Praise the Lord from the earth, you creatures of the ocean depths, fire and hail, snow and clouds, wind and weather that obey Him, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all livestock, small scurrying animals and birds, kings of the earth and all people, rulers and judges of the earth, young men and young women, old men and children. Let them all praise the name of the Lord. For His name is very great; His glory towers over the earth and heaven!”

Click here to hear The Friendly Beasts by Garth Brooks and friends

*Image courtesy of Martin Castro

Saturdays Are For Waiting

“The next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, ‘Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while He was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent His disciples from coming and stealing His body and then telling everyone He was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.’ Pilate replied, ‘Take guards and secure it the best you can.’ So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it.” (Matthew 27:62-66)

It’s Saturday. Jesus’ body lies silently in Joseph’s tomb. Much was spoken on Friday. Jesus will surprise the world on Sunday. But today is Saturday and Jesus is silent. God the Father is also silent. He made Himself known on Friday. He ripped the curtains of the temple from top to bottom. He opened the graves of dead and brought many back to life. He blocked the sun and allowed the darkness. He watched the sacrifice of His Son. His only Son. Yes, God was heard and known on Friday. And He will certainly act on Sunday. But it’s Saturday. So far, we hear nothing from Jesus. We hear nothing from God. There’s nothing to do but wait in the silence.

Most Easter sermons, devotions, articles and discussions skip Saturday altogether. Good Friday and Easter Sunday get all the attention. The crucifixion and the resurrection command our thoughts, as they should. But we can’t ignore Saturday, even if it is a silent Saturday. Because we all have our own silent Saturdays as well, those days between our own struggles and their solutions. Silent Saturdays are difficult. They torment us. We can’t help but wonder if God is mad at us. Did we somehow disappoint Him? He’s certainly doing a good job of giving us the silent treatment. Why doesn’t He speak? He knows what’s going on? He knows Jesus is in the tomb. He knows the issues we’re facing. He knows all about our failing careers, our disappointing marriages, and our financial disasters. So why is He silent? What are we supposed to do until He speaks?

Ironically, we do what Jesus did. We lie still. We stay silent. We trust God. We remember God’s promises. Jesus died knowing that “You will not abandon Me to the grave, nor will You let Your Holy One see decay.” (Acts 2:27 NIV) Jesus knew God would not leave Him alone in the grave. God will also not leave us alone with our struggles. His silence is not His absence. His inactivity is not His apathy. Silent Saturdays have their purpose. They let us feel the full force of God’s strength. If God had raised Jesus from the dead ten minutes after His death, would we appreciate the act? If God were to solve our problems as soon as they appear, would we be thankful for His strength?

It’s God’s business if He wants to insert a Saturday between our Good Fridays and our Easter Sundays. When we find ourselves in a silent Saturday, not knowing if an Easter Sunday is on the way, we must be strong and courageous. We must trust in Him who is always faithful. We must be patient.

Prayer: Lord, help us to wait on You and trust in You, even on our silent Saturdays, when we don’t know what You are doing next.  

Followup Activity –  Find a quiet place where you can be alone for a few moments. Make a list of issues of which you are waiting for the Lord to move. Pray over each item on your list, telling God you trust Him to work in the situation even if you can’t see Him move.

*Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao