Tune of the Day: The First Noel
This traditional English carol, also known as “The First Nowell”, is most likely from the 18th century. The now popular combination of tune and lyrics first appeared in print in a collection of Christmas carols published in 1833. The melody is unusual among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a variation on that phrase. It is thought to be a corruption of an earlier melody sung in a church gallery setting; because of its repetitive nature, it probably began as a descant to another melody, or possibly as parts of other tunes.
Here the word “Noel” (or “Nowell”) comes from the French Noël, meaning “Christmas”, from the Latin natalis, “birth”. It may also be from the Gaulish words noio or neu meaning “new”, and helle, meaning “light”, referring to the winter solstice (December 21), when sunlight begins overtaking darkness.