I am of two minds this morning (that is, of the minds that are focusing on this and not my ordination tomorrow):
The first mind is so glad this traditional English* hymn is in our hymnal, lyrics unabridged. It’s familiar, it’s fun to sing the chorus, and it has a wonderful focus on the first witnesses to this miracle – the shepherds and the magi. It’s a great “this is how important this birth is – angels talking to shepherds, wise guys… er…wise men traveling from the east – this doesn’t happen every day, yanno. A good, solid, Christmas carol.
The second mind is really glad we only have three verses of it in our hymnal, even if it cuts the magi story a bit short. Because good lord, it’s a fairly dull verse, musically, and after a while the chorus goes from joyful sacred singing to rowdy drinking song.
Here are the first three verses, which are in our hymnal:
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 king of Israel.
They looked 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 magi came from country far;
to seek a king was their intent, and to follow the star wherever it went.
For completeness’ sake, here are the next three:
This star drew nigh to the north-west; O’er Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay Right over the place where Jesus lay:
Then entered in those Wise Men three, Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence, Their gold and myrrh and frankincense:
Then let us all with one accord Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of nought, And with his blood mankind hath bought:
Yep. Glad we left it short.
*While it’s thought that this is a translation from the French, the carol’s origins are in Cornwall, in England – “Nowell” is an Early Modern English word for “Christmas” – probably a remnant from the Norman Invasion. (The image is of St Ives, in Cornwall.)