Thursday, January 5, 2017

Shining in the East (Day Twelve)

The last of the Twelve Days of Christmas is upon us, and tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. The three mysterious visitors, only described in the second chapter of Matthew (whoever they may have been: kings, magi, "wise men," maybe not even men, maybe not even three), are on their way. We close our bloggy celebration of the season with a very familiar carol with a very obscure origin.

Sources are unclear as to just how old this carol may be. The text is first published in Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823), collected by Davies Gilbert, and the text (somewhat altered) joined with this tune followed in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833). The version usually sung today is the harmonization by John Stainer, from Christmas Carols New and Old (1871). However, all these books were collecting carols from a long-running oral tradition, and scholars differ as to whether this one originally dates from the sixteenth century, or perhaps as early as the thirteenth century.

Apparently, since there isn't much to write about the source of this carol, the writers of hymnal companions have filled up their entries with other information: about the overall carol tradition (Episcopal Hymnal 1940), how they were used in Christmas observances (Lutheran Book of Worship), or even with editorial judgments ("this carol, as is the case with many carols, has little to commend it as a specimen of poetry" -- Presbyterian Hymnal 1933).  The congregation doesn't care; they always sing it heartily, whether on Christmas Eve, or closer to Epiphany (since the star-followers are so prominently featured).

The first Nowell the angel 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.

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Born is the Savior of Israel.

They look├Ęd up and saw a star
Shining in the east, beyond them far;
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.

And by the light of that same star
Three sages came from country far;
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.

This star drew nigh to the northwest,
Over Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right over the place where Jesus lay.

Then entered in those sages three,
Full reverently upon the knee,
And offered there, in his presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.

Traditional English carol, date unknown
Tune: THE FIRST NOWELL (Irregular with refrain)
harm. John Stainer, 1871

"Nowell," of course, is the old English version of the word, which seems more appropriate for this English carol than the French "Noel," though not all hymnal editors agree.

Seven Years Ago: Sound over all waters

Six Years Ago: Do you know the song that the angels sang?

One Year Ago: Where shall the Prince of Peace be born

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