The First Noël — Carols of Advent Love

2 John 4–6
4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. 5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

English lawyer and member of the Society of Antiquaries of London, William Sandys was concerned that the celebration of Christmas, especially the singing of Christmas songs, was waning in the first half of the 19th century. He set about collecting and preserving Christmas carols from both England and France, publishing two volumes totaling over 100 songs.

His first collection in 1833, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, also contained a lengthy 136-page introduction examining the history of Christmas celebrations. In this collection was found the first printed appearances of many classic English carols, including “The First Noël.”

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

The origins of the song date back to medieval Europe, a time when dramatizations of biblical stories called Miracle Plays were popular (early origins of Passion Plays and Christmas Pageants). The lyrics plainly recount the nativity stories of the shepherds and Magi directly from scripture.

Sandys’ carol collections helped revitalize Christmas celebrations in England. At the time, carol singing was typically done by singers gathering at people’s homes and was generally not to be found in church worship. Soon many cathedrals began including carols in Christmas services.

In 1880, Bishop Benson in Cornwall developed the first “Nine Lessons and Carols” service. Benson was concerned that the celebration of Christmas had become characterized by excessive consumption of alcohol and he developed a service of Christmas music and Bible readings, hoping to attract partygoers out of the pubs and into church.

The Nine Lessons service gained popularity across England. Ultimately, its most famous incarnation began an annual tradition at King’s College, Cambridge in 1918. At that inaugural event, “The First Noël” was given pride of place as the final congregational hymn in the service.

The song, along with recounting the nativity story, is unashamedly evangelistic, proclaiming the love of God for humanity through Christ’s sacrifice.

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of naught
And with his blood mankind has bought

One could easily assert that in the modern day, the celebration of the true nature of Christmas has waned. The holiday has become characterized by excessive consumerism and commercialism. Christmas is widely celebrated in a mostly secular way, marked by Black Friday, holiday movies and time off from work and school for the annual family ski trip.

May the simple story found in “The First Noël,” describing the worship of the shepherds and the Magi, encourage us as Christians to re-examine even our own focus on Christmas, calling us back to the importance of proclaiming God’s love to those around us.

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

*If you’d like some ideas for how you and your family can recenter your celebration of Christmas, check out the resources from The Advent Conspiracy.

Originally published at




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Jon J. Polk

Jon J. Polk

Striving to leave a legacy of a life well-lived and people well-loved.

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