The Christmas song telling the story of “The First Noël” (“Noël” is the French word for Christmas and stems from the Latin natalis, meaning “birthday”) is thought to date from as early as the 13th or 14th century, when the Miracle Plays, dramatizations of favorite Bible stories for special holidays, were popular. The tune, which may be English or French, is undoubtedly very old. It was first published with words by William Sandys in his 1833 edition of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.
The first Noël, 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.
Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël,
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 day and night.
This star drew nigh to the northwest;
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest,
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right o’er the place where Jesus lay.