The First Noel first appeared in print in 1833, but we know that the song was enjoyed by believers at least 300 years before. One of the interesting things about this old song is that it gets the story wrong. You see, when it was written, few people had Bibles. Most knew the Christmas story from what they heard at church or during the season’s celebrations.
We are not sure where this song was written or who wrote it. It sounds as though the French had a part in it, with the word, “Noel,” and they claim it of course. Noel comes from the French word for “birthday.” But the English have claimed it as well. Those who remember their history will know that when the Normans conquered England many French words were brought into the English language. That is why you will sometimes see the word spelled with an Old English spelling, Nowell.
The Scandinavians would celebrate the Christmas season by bringing the Yule log into their homes. They would cut a large tree, hollow out the core, and fill the hole with sweet smelling spices and oils. One end of the log would go into the fire and the log would be fed further each night throughout the season. This custom was adopted by the English during the Middle Ages and, it is said, they would sing the same carol each year as they lit the log for the first time. The First Nowell. The British story is that the song was introduced to the French people in the fifteenth century by English minstrels.
The song says that the first birthday celebrated by the angels, the first “noel,” was the birth of the Savior. It was a time of heavenly celebration. But there is a minor error in the text. There is no record of the star appearing to the shepherds. The star is only mentioned in connection with the wise men. Yet, this was the story that was passed down among the common people, who had no Bibles of their own to get every detail right. They did, however, get the point of the story right. They understood, as we see in the last verse, that the little baby born that night would give His blood for the salvation of His people.
(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here. These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend. Some of the stories are from my research. The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)