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noelThis Sunday, our choir shares its talents by singing a cantata entitled, “A Noel Celebration.” So let’s look at the meaning of Noel and revisit what a cantata meant to be.

Every year, people sing songs like “The First Noel” at Christmas, and many wonder what a “noel” is. In French, joyeux noel means “Merry Christmas.” Our modern English word comes from the Middle English nowel, which Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined as “a shout of joy or Christmas song.” The roots of the word are the French noel (“Christmas season”), which may come from the Old French nael. This, in turn, is derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “birth.” Since Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, it was natural for people to refer to the celebration as the “nativity” or the “birth.”

Another possible root for noel, also from the French, is the word nouvelles, meaning “news.” As the popular carol says, “The first noel the angels did say / was to certain poor shepherds. . . .” The meaning of “news” certainly makes sense in that context; however, the early usage and definition of noel seem to focus more on the idea of birth, and that is probably the more accurate meaning.

There are very few records giving the details of the earliest Christmas practices, but at least as early as the 4th century, some Christian groups were celebrating natus Christus on December 25. Since their almanac referred to the day as “the birth of Christ,” it would be natural to see derivative words like nael and noel used in the same way.

In the Middle Ages, several English carols began with nowell, and French carols similarly used noel. Since early songs often used the first word as the title, a “noel” came to refer to any song about the birth of Christ. Because of this, the word now carries the dual meaning of a Christmas song and the Christmas celebration itself.

What is a Cantata?

During the preparation for Advent and the Christmas season, many churches prepare a special service, highlighting the musical talents of their congregation. These special services are often called “A Cantata.” So here is a little history about the Cantata.

It does not take our Scriptures long to mention music. In Genesis 4:21, we are introduced to Jubal and the horn and harp. God chides His people in Genesis 31:27 for not coming to Him so he could bring them joy through music. The first mention of singing, maybe our first Cantata, can be found in Exodus 15:1–18, Called the “Song of Moses and Miriam,” we find the people of Israel singing the praises of and to their God.

Cantata means “To be sung.” Not everything that is sung is classified as a cantata, however. Here are some signs that a musical service may be a cantata, and not an opera or oratorio.

  • The topic is all about one thing
  • It is performed before smaller audiences
  • It is not overly-dramatic
  • It is typically broken into several small sections, or movements
  • It can be performed in as little as 10 to 15 minutes

To give some perspective on other types of musical programs, we have two to compare along with a cantata:

An oratorio is a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. Similar to an opera, various distinguishable characters may be introduced. However, an opera is typically musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert.

An opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints.

Because a Cantata can be similar to the oratorio and the opera, they may be hard to distinguish. Think of it this way. An opera is the big monster of vocal music. High drama; complex; long. Then comes the oratorio – opera’s little brother. They tend to be shorter, don’t have sets and staging, etc. Smaller than the oratorio is the cantata. Fewer performers and even shorter.

The cantata was hugely popular in Italy in the 1600’s. So popular that many composers wrote them as their primary work. Most of these were secular (non-church-related) pieces. Right around 1700 Germany took hold of the form, and brought it to church. The German cantatas tended to be more dramatic and more complex than the earlier Italian ones. The Christmas Cantata typically tells us about the birth of Christ.

The Christmas Story

So where is the story of Christ’s birth in the Bible? Where would a director of a cantata look?

The Gospel of Matthew – Chapter 1

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Chapter 2

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Gospel of Mark has no reference to the Nativity story

The Gospel of Luke – Chapter 1

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Chapter 2

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at nigh. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor .” 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord hs made known to us.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the mange 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

The Gospel of John has no reference to the Nativity story

A Quiz on the Nativity Story1

How do you know if you are operating with a mythical view of Christ’s birth? Here’s a short quiz to help you determine your Biblical knowledge.

  1. How many wise men were there?
  2. Did the wise men visit Christ in the manger?
  3. Were the wise men kings?
  4. Were the wise men from the Orient (Eastern Asia)?
  5. Where did the bright star appear above the Christ child?
  6. Was Christ born in December?
  7. Did it snow when Christ was born?
  8. What animals attended the birth of Christ?
  9. Did the innkeeper turn Mary and Joseph away?
  10. What was the name of the angel that stood above the stable that night?
  11.  Did Mary deliver Jesus with only Joseph’s help?

If you answered “yes” to any questions which required a yes/no answer then you have a misunderstanding of the biblical account of the events surrounding the birth of Christ. Check the link in the footnotes for the answers.