Here is a challenge for you. Find the origin of “Noel.” There are a respectable breadth and shallow depth of information on where this word came from. While today we use it commonly as a synonym for Christmas, agreement pretty well ends after that. Uncertain roots and meanings do not seem to inhibit the use of the word “Noel” this time of year.
I expected general consensus that Noel was of French derivation. A little research, however, turns up a competing claim that the word has a Gaelic or Celtic source. That need not disprove the theory of a French origin, since many Celtic peoples lived in France (or Gaul) before the Romans came, and many who today live in the northwestern parts of France trace their genealogies to Celtic roots, especially in Brittany.
Another French origin theory links the word to Latin, but here again opinion diverges. One school traces Noel from the Latin word natalis, suggesting a meaning derived from a reference to birth, particularly celebration of the birth of the Savior.
The other French-from-Latin line takes us to Nowell, and from there to Nouvelles, referring to the Latin word for “news”: novella, as in the good news of Christ’s birth. With no personal claim to expertise in the science of etymology, I will admit to a preference for this derivation. Aware of the French way of smoothing out Latin words, Nowell sounds like a very understandably French form of Novella. Moreover, we have Medieval and Renaissance carols using the words Nouvelles and Nowell in much the same way that Noel is used in more modern carols. In each case, the word is sung as a way of proclaiming joyous news, which fits very well with today’s French greeting of the season, Joyeux Noel! Good news also happens to be related to the meaning of “Gospel” (which, by the way, comes from old English).
Which brings me to the popular carol, “The First Noel” (perhaps translated from the French), which begins like this:
The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
[and so forth].
Children love to sing Christmas carols. The carols, after all, have laid claim to some of the most memorable melodies. The words of carols, however, can at times challenge the vocabulary of little children. Through many years of singing “The First Noel” I was certain that the word “certain” in the second line was a verb, not an adjective. In my young mind it described what and why the angel was speaking to the shepherds. The angel appeared in order to certain the shepherds.
While I was not sure what it meant “to certain” the shepherds, today I am not so sure that I was wrong in hearing a verb. Why the angel chose those shepherds and perhaps not some others who might have been nearby seems to me less important than his purpose. The angel wanted those shepherds to know, to understand, to be certain of what they saw, and thereby to be witnesses. The angel explained to the shepherds what was happening, what it meant, where it was happening, how to recognize the marvel, and then the shepherds quickly went to see for themselves, personally. Immediately afterward they shared what they knew.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . . And they came with haste, and found . . . the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. (Luke 2:8-17)
The Lord wants us to believe His word, but He wants our belief to mature into certainty, into knowledge. As the Savior Himself prayed to the Father in the presence of His disciples,
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)
Following His resurrection, Jesus was careful to make His disciples certain of His resurrection so that they might witness to others of what they knew, enabling others at first to believe and then come to know for themselves by the testimony of the Holy Ghost.
Wherefore I give you to understand, . . . that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
Similarly, in our day, the Lord would that we had living faith grown to knowledge through the Holy Ghost. As the ancient American prophet, Moroni, testified,
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)
I, too, have been certained. I know for sure that God is real and that Jesus Christ was resurrected and is the Savior of the world. I am not alone in that knowledge. Many have believed and had belief confirmed by the assurance of the Holy Ghost.
This Christmas season—or any season—I invite you to become certained, as were those poor shepherds and millions of God’s children before and since. For you, like them, that would be discovering the true Noel of Christmas.