The First Nowell
Alternate Title: For Christmas Day In The Morning
Alternate Titles: The First Noel, The First Nowel
Also described as A Carol For The Epiphany
Words & Music: Traditional English carol of the 16th or 17th century, but possibly dating from as early as the 13th Century. This combination of tune and lyrics first appeared in the early 1800s.
Also found in William Sandys, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music (London: John Russell Smith, 1852), pp. 261-2.
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell.
2. 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, both day and night. Chorus
3. And by the light of that same Star
Three Wise Men came from country far,
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the Star wherever it went. Chorus
4. This Star drew nigh to the North West;
O'er Bethlehem it took it's rest.
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right4 over the place where Jesus lay. Chorus
5. Then did they know assuredly5
Within that house, the King did lie
One entered in then for to see
And found the babe in poverty. Chorus
6. Then enter'd in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offer'd there, in his presence,
Their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense. Chorus
7. Between an ox stall and an ass,
This Child truly there born he was;
For want of clothing they did him lay
All in a manger, among the hay. Chorus
8. Then let us all with one accord5b
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind hath bought. Chorus
9. If we in our time shall do well6
We shall be free from death and Hell
For God hath prepared for us all
A resting place in general. Chorus
1b. Or: Was to 'certain' poor shepherds (Bramley and Stainer) ReturnReturn
5. Then 'they did' know assuredly Return
5b. Or: Now let us all ... Return
6. One source omits the word 'shall' Return
2. They looked above, and there saw a star,
As it shone in the east but beyond them afar:
And to the earth it gave forth great light,
And continued so both day and night.
3. And by the light of that same bright star
There were three wise men came from the east country far;
To seek the King it was their intent,
And to follow the star where ever it went.
4. The star drew nigh unto the north-west;
Over Bethlehem paused, and there it did rest;
And there did shine most bright, and did stay
Over where the young Child and His mother lay.
5. Then entered in those wise men all three
Very reverently upon bended knee,
And offered there in His presence
gifts of gold and of myrrh and of frankincense.
Sheet Music from Sandys, 1852
Sheet Music from Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley and Sir John Stainer, eds., "Christmas Carols New and Old." First, Second and Third Series. London: Novello Ewer & Co., ca. 1878, #6.
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Dr. Dunstan adds this note: "'On Christmas Eve, in former days, the small people, or the Spriggans, would meet at the bottom of the deepest mines, and have a midnight mass. Then those who were in the mine would hear voices, melodious beyond all earthly voices, singing: 'O well, O well!' and the strains of some deep-toned organ would shake the rocks.' (Hunt: Romances of the West of England.)"
Public Domain Recordings:
LibriVox Christmas Carol Collection 2006 (Recording by Claire Goget)
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Bramley and Stainer, "Christmas Carols New and Old."
Music by H. J. Gauntlett from Hutchins, "Carols Old and Carols New," #643
Hutchins, "Carols Old and Carols New," #266
Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book
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Sandys' Note concerning the reference to "three poor Shepherds" in the 1st verse:
According to some legends, the number [of shepherds] was four, called Misael, Achael, Cyriacus, and Stephanus, and these, with the names of the three Kings, were used as a charm to cure the biting of serpents, and other venomous reptiles and beasts. In the seventh of the Chester Mysteries, the Shepherds, who there are but three, have the more homely names of Harvey, Tudd, and Trowle, and are Cheshire or Lancashire boors by birth and habits. Trowle's gift to our Saviour is "a pair of his wife's old hose."
Also found in Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861), who notes:
This is the popular English version of the The Golden Carol just given, and details the wanderings of the Magi, or Three Kings. In the original, Noel, the French word for Christmas, or Christmas-carol, is corrupted to "Nowell." I have not hesitated to restore the correct rendering. With regard to the three poor Shepherds, alluded to in the second line, Mr. Sandys remarks that according to some legends the number was four, called Misael, Achael, Cyriacus, and Stephanus, and these with the names of the Three Kings, were used as a charm to cure the biting of serpents, and other venomous reptiles and beasts. In the seventh of the Chester Mysteries, the Shepherds, who are three but three, have the more homely names of Harvey, Tudd and Trowle, and are Cheshire or Lancashire boors by birth and habits. Trowle's gift to our Saviour is "a pair of his wife's old hose."
The following note is found at the bottom of the carol:
In some old broadside copies two additional, but very foolish verses are occasionally found [verses 7 and 9 above]. They were probably inserted by a local printer when passing his sheet off for "A New Carol."
Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.
This is a well-known, although it cannot be styled a popular carol, since although it is included in every collection of carols, it is not found in any broadside that has fallen under notice, nor is it contained in Hone's list of such productions [see: Christmas Carols now annually Printed]. It probably first appeared in Davies Gilbert's collection of Carols sung in the West of England [1822 & 1823]; and next in Mr. Sandys's collection , where it is also given as a West-country carol, "for Christmas day in the morning. Mr. Sandys observes, in reference to the number of shepherds, that 'according to some legends the number was four, ó called Misael, Achael, Cyriacus, and Stephanus, and these, with the names of the three kings, were used as a charm to cure the biting of serpents and other venomous reptiles and beasts. In the seventh of the Chester Mysteries, the shepherds, who are there but three, have the more homely names of Harvey, Trowle, and Tudd, and are Cheshire or Lancashire boors by birth and habits." Mr. Sandys is not quite accurate in the latter part of this statement. The shepherds in the Chester play to which he refers ó "The Play of the Shepherds" ó are four in number, who are severally designated as Primus, Secundus, and Tercius Pastor; but whose names appear from the dialogue to be Hancken, Harvey, and Tudd; and Trowle, who is a distinct person, always mentioned by name.
Also found in
Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old. London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca. 1878, #6, omitting verses 5, 7, and 9. Sir John Stainer's setting has become the standard. See above.
A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland. London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), p. 7, who notes that this carol is found in Sandys' Christmas Carols, and other collections.
Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700. London: Chatto & Windus, 1914, p. 55, who adds the note "This traditional carol, apparently first printed by Sandys in 1833, is yet quite in the old spirit."
Thomas Wright, ed., Specimens of Old Christmas Carols Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books (The Percy Society, 1841).
It was first found in the "Hutchens manuscript," according to the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, and then found its way into the hands of Davies Gilbert, who included the 9 stanzas of the carol into Some Ancient Christmas Carols, 1823. That manuscript is now in the County Record Office, Truro. Ten years later, William Sandys would included the carol, virtually unchanged, in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833), but would add some music for the carol.
The words themselves were published on broadsides in the Cornwall region in southwest England, and some suspect a sixteenth century origin. While Sandys indicated that the carol was "for Christmas Day in the morning," many believe that the song is better suited as an Epiphany processional. According to Ian Bradley, when used in "Nine Lessons And Carols" in 1918, it was used as the final hymn while the choir moved to the alter to sing the final Magnificat.
The music, however, is more problematic. In short, Sandys' tune appears to be an amalgam of tune parts; in particular, because of its repetitive nature, it probably began as a descant to another melody or possibly as parts of other tunes. I would recommend the analysis given by the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (pp. 482-83). Their second setting is a conjectural setting of what they believe an original gallery setting would have sounded like, adapted from a setting published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Volume 5. The words are similar to those captured by Cecil Sharp and by Ralph Dunstan; see Version 4.
The setting given by Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) is the most familiar, and links are given above (a link to the sheet music is also found above).
Instrumental sheet music to this and 12 other carols may be downloaded from Sally DeFord Music, http://www.defordmusic.com/carolsforpiano.htm (site accessed September 30, 2006). An MP3 of this arrangement is also available at that page.
A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland. London: John C. Nimmo, 1885, p. 7, who notes that this carol is found in Sandys' Christmas Carols, and other collections.