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, No?l
Rare a Christmas carol


Noël, Nowel, Nowell

Contemporary English dictionaries define the word "noel" (also spelled "nowel" or "nowell") as a cry of joy associated with the celebration of Christmas. In past eras English speakers also used the word to refer to the feast of Christmas itself. This usage never faded in the French language, where the word Noël still means Christmas, or, when spelled without a capital "n," means "Christmas carol." Although the English word "noel" is now considered somewhat obsolete, a number of traditional Christmas carols retain this old expression.

Researchers differ in their explanations of the origin of the word "noel." Most trace it back to the Latin word for birthday, natalis. Indeed, in the fourth century Church authorities in Rome introduced Christmas as Dies Natalis Domini, the "Birthday of the Lord" (see also December 25). The more formal name for the holiday was FestumNativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, the "Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Over the centuries the Latin words Natalis and Nativitatis passed into local languages across western Europe giving birth to vernacular words for Christmas. For example, the Portuguese call Christmas Natal, the Italians refer to it as Natale, and the Spanish call it Navidad. Other modern words for Christmas that probably evolved from the Latin natalis include the Gaelic Nollaig, the Welsh Nadolig, and the Provençal Nadal. Most scholars also trace the English "noel" and the French "Noël" back to the Latin word natalis.

In contrast, other writers suggest that the English word "noel" evolved from the Latin word for "news," novella. They believe that this Latin term was used to tell the joyous news of Jesus' birth, and so became the jubilant cry of those celebrating the feast of Christmas, or even another term for the feast itself. One researcher who supports this theory notes that in the Middle Ages people greeted news of especially happy events with cries of "noel." Finally, another scholar has suggested that "noel" comes from the Hebrew word Immanuel (or Emmanuel). This word - which, in Christian scripture is used to refer to Jesus (Matthew 1:23) - means "God with us."

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Duncan, Edmondstoune. The Story of the Carol. 1911. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New York: Macmillan, 1979.



An old English term for newel.
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