Calvinists Cringing at a Cornish Carol (The First Noël/Nowell)
If you want a quick schooling in both Christmas and these melodic hymns we call carols, you must read Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern by the preserver of today's carol – The First Noël – William Sandys. The text is available in its original published form via Google Books and you will receive a university course-worth of education by just reading the introduction.
That book was published in the early 1800's and is where we find a series of carols (including this one) grouped by the title "still used in the West of England". Sandys was a member of an organization that was intent on preserving long-held customs and observances and Sandys himself was fascinated with the customs surrounding Christmas.
The term "Noël" is French for "carol" or even "birth". The adapted old English "Nowell" can also mean "news". The full song title may sound a bit presumptuous, but the carol is not claiming any sort of initial position. It comes, as is the tradition in many old songs, from the first line of the first verse. The carol makes a couple mistakes many of us do: counting three wise men (the number is not known) and positioning the arrival of these foreign visitors very close to the birth of Jesus (it was most certainly not).
The last verse in the canonical translation has the potential to cause a bit of concern to Calvinists, but the carol hardly attempts to assert that it is an authoritative theological composition and it is fairly generally accepted that "If we in our time shall do well, we shall be free from death and Hell" is a lyrical way of celebrating that if we do believe that Christ is our Lord and Saviour, then we have the promise of eternal life.
While Sandys has deemed Noël be sung on Christmas morning, there are other sources which have it being an integral part of a Christmas Eve festal (holiday/feast) service of "nine lessons with carols". I am most confident that God would not mind us singing this carol on December 24th, 25th or any of the other 363 days of the year. In fact, from reading Psalm 100, I gather that it would truly be music to His ears and it would definitely do our hearts, minds and spirits much good as well.
Drop a note in the comments if you'd like to share your favorite arrangement or performance of this carol.
FOR CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE MORNING.
The first Nowell the Angel did say
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
They looked up and saw a Star
And by the light of that same Star,
This Star drew nigh to the North West,
Then did they know assuredly
Then enter'd in those Wise Men three
Between an ox stall and an ass,
Then let us all with one accord
If we in our time shall do well,