The First Noel by Pentatonix.
Somehow Americans have come to think that the Christmas season begins at Thanksgiving and stretches through Christmas Day after which it abruptly ends. This is largely due to tying the season to retail sales and gift giving since the 1920’s when Macy’s had Santa arrive at the end of their annual parade. It got a boost during the Depression when it became government policy to encourage Christmas shopping as a way of stimulating the shattered economy and really took off during the post-World War II economic boom and the stimulus of advertising, especially on television.
In this view the Holidays that Bing Crosby sang about would extend to New Year’s Eve and Day after which everyone switches back to the daily grind and a long stretch of cabin fever producing Winter.
The U.S. Christmas includes all of traditional Advent, a Christian liturgical season of reverent anticipation of the coming of the New Born King. Christmas for Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and other Christians who observe that traditional calendar extends from Christmas Day through the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany in January—the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was in this season that the celebration of Christ’s birth was exuberantly blended with ancient pre-Christian customs including the turn-about of St. Stephen’s/Boxing Day, caroling and street begging, country dancing, punctuated by a riotous New Year’s, and ending with the wassailing and revelry of Twelfth Night.
True Christmas carols were only sung in church during this season and there were numerous less reverent songs for the street celebrations and private parties. No where were these festive songs more popular than in the British Isles. Among the oldest of these songs is The First Nowell, First Noël, or First Noel. Noel is an early modern English synonym for Christmas from the Norman French.
The song is of Cornish origin first noted in the early 19th Century during the fad for collecting traditional folk song, but is undoubtedly much older. Cornwall was an ancient Celtic region occupying the southwest peninsula of Britain with its own distinctive language and culture.
The version now most commonly sung was printed in Carols, New and Old by John Stainer in 1871.
The First Noel in its current form was first published in 1823 in Carols Ancient and Modern and again in 1833 in Gilbert and Sandys Carols, both of which were edited by William Sandys and arranged 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.
A number of variations on the lyrics have been published over the years and two final verses completing the story of the Wise Men were omitted by Stainer and are not now usually sung or included in hymnals.
Hip and modern, the a cappela quintet Pentatonix has become Christmas music favorites.
Today we feature a version by Pentatonix, the American a cappella group from Arlington, Texas, consisting of vocalists Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Matt Sallee. The group gained a wide following after winning the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off and now have a popular YouTube channel. They mix pop arrangements with close harmonies, basslines, riffing, percussion, and beatboxing and have become especially well known for their Christmas music.
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