The First Nowell
It's that time of year when people are weighing in on their least favorite Christmas songs. “The Little Drummer Boy” is often at the top of the list. How many “rum pa pum pum’s” does a person need to hear in December? Or a lifetime? “Feliz Navidad” also makes many people’s lists. In the true spirit of unity, this song manages to be irritating in two languages.
At First Presbyterian Church, we have a tradition with Christmas hymns. We always sing “The First Noël” the Sunday after Christmas. This is because I am always on vacation the first Sunday after Christmas, and I cannot stand this song. How do I despise it? Let me count the ways.
First, in our hymnal its title is “The First Nowell.” This alone is insulting. It’s as though Presbyterians do not know that the two little dots over the “e” in “Noël,” a tréma, indicate the absence of a diphthong. [Memo to self: “Absence of a Diphthong” great name for a rock band.] Someone familiar with this convention reads the title as it appears in our hymnal as though we are about to announce a severe water shortage, rather than the birth of baby Jesus.
I am not unfamiliar with the work of the brilliant late twentieth century British philosopher, Robert Plant, who once opined, “You know, sometimes, words have two meanings.” In our hymnal it is certain that “Nowell” refers not to the holiday of Christmas, but to a song associated with that holiday. It is, however, curious to me that in the first Christmas song which gives this hymn its title the angels “did say,” rather than “did sing.” Perhaps the composer of this hymn means to suggest that the first Christmas carol or “noël” was rapped. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
Yo, bum rush da manger/ Da savior’s born!!
Second, the lyrics are not true to Scripture. The shepherds did not look up and see a star; they looked up and saw an angel [Luke 2:9]. The magi saw a star [Matthew 2:2]. The star was not shining in the East; the magi were in the East when they saw the star. There is no mention in either Luke’s or Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth that the light “continued both day and night,” though we will sing exactly that. The song says there were three wise men. Scripture only mentions that the wise men were plural. There could have been two or twenty. I know, everyone knows there were three of these guys, and one of them was black. Scripture describes them only as “wise men from the East” [Matthew 2:1]. They brought three different gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I imagine the sages gathering to plan their junket to Bethlehem and saying,
“Put me down for myrrh.”
“I’ll pop for the frankincense; my brother-in-law can get it for me wholesale.”
“Fine, I’ll bring the gold, but next time let’s do Rock Paper Scissors to decide! Have you seen the price of gold these days?” [This exchange appears in the yet-to-be-published “Book of Tom.”]
Third, the lyrics are inscrutable. “On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.” How does one measure the depth of a night? There is nothing in Luke’s gospel to suggest what the temperature was when the angel appeared to the shepherds. Given what we know about first century Palestinian animal husbandry practices—I challenge you to work that clause into a conversation this week—the shepherds would have been out in the fields only between mid-April and mid-October. During the colder months they stayed in town. So the angel would not have appeared to the shepherds in a field “on a cold winter’s night that was so deep,” which is too bad, because “deep” rhymes with “sheep.”
No one knows exactly when Jesus was born. December 25 was first used as the date to mark Christ’s birth in 354 ad. Which is about 360 years after Jesus was born. Brother Denys le Petit, the guy who proposed dividing time between AD and BC was a little off. Still, December 25 works. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we need Christmas, or something like it, as the days are shorter, and the nights longer, colder, maybe even deeper.
Auntie Mame was right! We need a little Christmas late in December, but let’s not start thinking that Jesus was actually born at the time of year we celebrate his birth. He was not born in the bleak mid-winter. Snow did not fall snow on snow on snow in Bethlehem sometime during Baseball Season, when Quirinius was governor. [Look! I found my second most hated Christmas carol]]
Fourth, the inscrutable, un-Biblical lyrics are mind-numbingly repetitive. When the Presbyterians have finished singing this tune, they will have sung “Noël,” excuse me, “Now-ell” twenty-five times. This song alone will make us want to pack up the holly, douse the candles by the window, and shriek “humbug!”
Fifth, this is a Christmas carol about a Christmas carol. I think of it as a meta-carol. Songs in praise of songs irritate me. Whether it’s Bob Seger, now sixty-five years old singing the praises of “old time rock & roll” or Billy Joel crowing “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” or country star Trace Adkins’s solipsistic “Songs About Me,” I hate the idea of music in praise of music. Admittedly, the text of “The First Nowell” is ambiguous, as the singer sings “nowell” twenty-four times in the refrain, he could be praising the holiday or the holiday song—perhaps it is both. Why split hairs when singing the same word over and over?
Oh, wait! Perhaps you like to sing this carol. Perhaps it simply will not be Christmas in your heart if you do not sing this particular noël at least once. Perhaps you like inscrutable, un-Biblical, repetitive lyrics. Perhaps you like meta-songs. Perhaps you are not a snob about French orthography, comme moi. You’re in luck!
Our guest preacher has been graciously commanded to select this hymn. Join us at 9:30 am at 110 Church Avenue, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Sunday, December 28. Sing well. Sing loudly. Sing with passion and energy! I will be on vacation.
This article first appeared in The Cresset, Valparaiso University's Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affaris, Advent-Christmas 2010