The First Noel 2.0

The First Noel 2.0

Today marks the traditional date for the Epiphany and Christmas carols are still ringing in my head.

One of my favorite carols is The First Noel. However, as an astronomer ever since I learned the carol I have been bothered by the second, third, and fourth stanzas. The first four stanzas are as follows:

“The first Noel”, the angels 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

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel! [refrain]

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

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel! [refrain]

And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel! [refrain]

This star drew nigh to the northwest
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both stop and stay
Right o’er the place where Jesus lay

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel! [refrain]

What concerned me about the second, third, and fourth stanzas was that they were neither biblically nor astronomically accurate. The shepherds did not notice the star (Luke 2). The magi were not present at the first noel (Christmas). When the magi (wisemen) arrived in Jerusalem sometime after the birth of Jesus to inquire of King Herod and the chief priests and teachers of the law (Matthew 2), neither the priests, teachers of the law, or Herod had any awareness of the star the magi saw when they were back in their homeland in the east. Nor is there any record of the star in the astronomical annals of the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, or Japanese. If the magi’s star “gave great light” and was visible “both day and night,” it would have been recorded in all the astronomical annals and everyone in Jerusalem, in fact the world, would be aware of it.

The only possible sighting outside of what we read in Matthew 2 is a Korean astronomical note of the appearance of a “guest star” in 5 BC. A guest star is a nova.

A nova is a binary star where one member of the binary system is a burnt-out white dwarf star and the other is either a hydrogen-burning star or a subgiant or red giant star. If the two stars orbit one another closely, the white dwarf star will accrete matter, mostly hydrogen, from its companion star onto its stellar surface. Eventually, this accreted matter attains a critical temperature that ignites rapid runaway fusion. This runaway fusion causes the white dwarf to brighten by several thousand times and then slowly dim over several weeks to a few months until it becomes invisible to the naked eye.

The brightest novae attain the brightness of the star Polaris (the North Star) and occur on average about once per century. Unlike supernovae that can become so bright as to be visible both day and night, a subcategory of novae recur. That is, they can attain naked-eye brightness, disappear from view for many months or years, and reappear at naked-eye brightness. As the Matthew text describes, the star appeared to the Magi in their homeland, faded from view, and then reappeared while they were on their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The time between the two appearances can be ascertained by the fact that King Herod closely questioned the magi about the timing of the first appearance of the star. Based on what he learned, he had all boys who were two years old or younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity killed (Matthew 2:16–18). Evidently, Herod thought his reign was threatened by the “newborn king” that the magi sought to worship.

So, what should we do with the second, third, and fourth stanzas of The First Noel? Here is my attempted edit of the second stanza to make it both biblically and astronomically accurate:

One night wisemen saw a new star
The star vanished while they’re yet afar
Nearing Bethlehem, the star came back
Now the young king would have no lack

As for the third and fourth stanzas, stars do not move relative to the celestial sphere, at least at naked-eye resolution. The star did not guide the wisemen to the location of Jesus. As Matthew 2 describes, the wisemen had to inquire of the chief priests and teachers of the law to determine the location of the prophesied birth of the Messiah. Nor does the original Greek in Matthew 2 require the star to “stop and stay.”

Now, I am far from a competent poet. Thus, I would love to see what readers who are more skilled than I can come up with for stanzas two, three, and four.


Readers who want to further pursue the biblical and scientific details of the Christmas star and learn more about the magi can check out my articles, “The Christmas Star” and “Astronomy Sheds New Light on the Christmas Star.”