Carol – the First Noel

The popular Christmas Carol, The First Noël, is believed to date from the 13th or 14th century, a time in which all medieval civilization in Europe was springing to life. The inspiration for the story of the song comes from dramatizations of favorite Bible stories for holidays, which were called the Miracle Plays, and were very popular during this time. It tells the story of the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, based on the Gospel accounts in Luke 2 and Matthew 2. Noël is the French word for Christmas and is from the Latin natalis, meaning “birthday.” Most medieval poetry was written to be sung, so it is presumed that the words were written with an existing tune in mind. This makes the tune to the song even older, and is likely English or French.


“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” VU 64


Many hymns that were written originally for children have captured the imagination of everyone. Such is the case with “O little town of Bethlehem.”

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote this beloved Christmas hymn for the Sunday school children at his Philadelphia parish, Holy Trinity Church, following a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865. The hymn was printed on an informal leaflet in December 1868 and then appeared in The Sunday School Hymnal in 1871.

According to the story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
“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. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”

Brooks participated in the Christmas Eve service, writes hymnologist Albert Bailey, “conducted in . . . Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.) built over the traditional site of the Nativity, a cave. The service lasted from 10 P.M. to 3 A.M.!” This sequence of events provided the backdrop for Brooks’ children’s hymn.  Unlike many Christmas carols, the lyrics of this reflective and hopeful song are set in the present tense rather than the past. The author’s experience of wonder and awe are palpable and cover the seemingly great distance between the birth of Christ then and our experience of it now.


Isaiah 11:1‒9

Carol:  Good King Wenceslas


Though the tune is taken from a much older madrigal, (it’s a 13th-century tune called ‘Tempus adest floridum’ in praise of the spring), John Mason Neale’s “Good King Wenceslas” (1853) is about a man who braves winter storms during Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26) to help his poorer neighbours. The second day of Christmas, also know as “Boxing Day” was a day to give gifts of charity.

The story it tells is based on a real person—Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. He was also known as Vaclac the Good, or Svatý Václav in Czech and lived from c.907 to 28 September 935.  And the reason we have his exact date of death is that he was assassinated – on the orders of his brother, appropriately named Boleslaus the Cruel. Wenceslas didn’t come from Christian stock: his grandfather had been converted to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius. And his mother was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief – though she was baptized before she was married.

His charity and popularity eventually led to his being named the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

There’s also a brilliant legend attached to the statue of St Wenceslas in Wenceslaus Square in Prague. The story goes that if the Czech Republic is in danger, the statue of King Wencelaus will come to life, raise a sleeping army and reveal a legendary sword to bring peace to the land.

This carol is beloved by many, in large part because of the evocative story images and the possibility for performance. Traditionally, the part of the Page (the king’s assistant) is sung by a treble voice, while the King is sung by a bass voice. However, in a congregational setting, the same could be achieved by assigning a part to higher and lower voices, or children and adults, or one half of the church and the other, with everyone joining together for the non-dialogue parts. The whole thing is quite a bit of fun, especially since the opportunities to sing this simple Christmas story are so few.

Isaiah 9:2‒7


“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” VU 44


Written by Massachusetts Unitarian minister Edmund Sears, this pastoral-sounding carol carries a much deeper meaning than simply retelling the birth of Jesus. Sears hoped to offer an uplifting message amid the great poverty he was witness to and to remind people that God, in the form of a child, had entered a world sorely in need of love and peace. Richard Storrs Willis’ tune, CAROL, paired with the words only a year later, gave the carol its lasting appeal and one of its two most common tunes, the other being NOËL.

A very fine movie made in 1992, A Midnight Clear, tells the story of American and German soldiers laying aside their weapons on Christmas Eve of 1944.

The story ends tragically, as miscommunication causes hostilities to resume. Yet, the powerful third verse of the carol, with its invitation to hush the noise of battle in order to hear God’s “love song” to the earth and all people, is a strong one. This carol speaks gently, yet powerfully, God’s word of peace amid strife and weariness.

Isaiah 63:7‒9


“Silent Night, Holy Night” VU 67


In 1816, Father Joseph Mohr wrote the poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” while stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. Two years later, now at St. Nicholas’ church in Oberndorf, he asked Franz Gruber to set the poem for guitar and choir, which the two performed on Christmas Eve of 1818. Since then, a legend has grown around the circumstances of this collaboration, beginning with a broken organ at St. Nicholas’ and ending with a dramatic, last-minute musical setting for the now-familiar carol. To what extent the legend of the carol’s origins is true is perhaps less important than its beauty and simplicity.

  1. Joy to the World VU 59

At this point in history, most songs sung in European church services were the Psalms in the Old Testament. Though Isaac Watts loved the Bible, he felt that these songs felt “unnatural” to sing in their modern-day English translations.

After one Sunday service, 15-year-old Isaac complained about “the atrocious worship.” One of the deacons challenged him with, “Give us something better, young man.” He went home and penned his first hymn, and the love of hymn-writing stuck with him the rest of his life.

In 1719, his book “Psalms of David Imitated” was published, not as a new paraphrase of David, but as an imitation of him in New Testament language. Watts’ perspective was the Psalms bursting forth in their complete fulfillment. Joy to the World is the “imitation” of the last half of Psalm 98.

Watts transformed the old Jewish psalm of praise for historic deliverance into a song of rejoicing for the salvation of God that began when the Jesus came “to make his blessing flow far as the curse is found.”

Music is from George Frederick Handel, and some scholars say it resembles his greatest work, Messiah.