“The First Noel” (also written “The First Noël” and “The First Nowell”) is a traditional classical English Christmas carol, most likely from the early modern period, although possibly earlier. Noel is an Early Modern English synonym of “Christmas”.
In its current form, it is of Cornish origin, and it was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833), both of which were edited by William Sandys and arranged, edited and with extra lyrics written by Davies Gilbert for Hymns and Carols of God. Today, it is usually performed in a four-part hymn arrangement by the English composer John Stainer, first published in his Carols, New and Old in 1871. Variations of its theme are included in Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony.
The melody is unusual among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a refrain which is a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale. It is thought to be a version of an earlier melody sung in a church gallery setting; a conjectural reconstruction of this earlier version can be found in the New Oxford Book of Carols.
The Annunciation to the shepherds and the Adoration of the shepherds are episodes in the Nativity of Jesus described in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2). The Star of Bethlehem appears in the story of the Magi (the Wise Men) in the Gospel of Matthew; it does not appear in the story of the shepherds.