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What is the meaning of Noel?

“The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night that was so deep
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!”

These are the opening lyrics of the Christmas hymn The First Noel. If you haven't heard the song, do a search on Spotify or YouTube. Listening to this song always helps me get into the Christmas spirit. But what does "Noel" mean? Is it just another word for Christmas?

Noel: A Little Etymology

"Noel" is a contemporary French word that means "Christmas." The French will say joyeux noel which is the equivalent of saying "Merry Christmas"! Noel likely has a root in the Latin word, natalis, which means "birth." Our present English word noel evolved from a Middle English word that means “a shout of joy or Christmas song.” Another possible root of noel is the French word nouvelles, which means “news.” This would make sense for its use in that first line of The First Noel.

Considering the early usage of the word "noel," however, the most likely definition for the song lyrics refers to “birth.” The angels were singing because of Jesus' birth, which marked the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 2:8-14). They were celebrating because Jesus was born into the world to save mankind from our sins (John 3:16-17). Today, Christians sing The First Noel in celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Noel = Christmas

Fourth century Christians called this particular celebration “natus Christus,” which means “the birth of Christ." Their almanacs noted December 25 as "the birth of Christ," so that makes sense! After the 4th century, Christians around the world greeted one another with "joyous noel!" at Christmas and sang songs with the word “noel” included in the lyrics. Today, many believers will simply equate saying, “noel,” with saying, “Merry Christmas!”

The contemporary version of that hymn, The First Noel was originally written and sung with the purpose of celebrating Jesus' birth, and we are still celebrating today.

Christmas is a remembrance of God's Son being born into humanity to save us from our sins (John 3:16-17). The birth of the Lord can and should be celebrated because His birth, death, burial, and resurrection have provided us with a way to restore our relationship with God.

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TL;DR

The word “noel” has many different roots and meanings. The most plausible definition (in a Christmas context) is “birth”—specifically, the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, "joyous noel” can be equated to wishing someone “Merry Christmas.” When we sing Christmas songs with reference to "noel" in them, we're celebrating Jesus’ birth into the world, for He is the One who makes freedom from the punishment of sin possible (John 3:16-17).

Writer: Vivian Bricker

Vivian loves learning, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She is dedicated to helping people learn more about Jesus and is ready to help in any way she can. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, cooking, drawing, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, you can find her soaking up the sunshine or going on an adventure.

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