– Noel, or Noël: Christmas, especially on Christmas cards and as a refrain in carols
– noel, or noël: a Christmas carol
This noun is from Anglo-Norman and Middle French forms such as Noël, Noel (modern French Noël), variants of forms such as Naël, Nael, first attested at the beginning of the 12th century.
These forms are from the noun use of the Latin adjective natalis, meaning of, or belonging to, one’s birth. The noun use (from natalis dies, day of birth) denoted a birthday, an anniversary, a commemorative festival, hence in ecclesiastical Latin the festival of the nativity of Christ, Christmas.
In English, Noel has not been in standard use in the sense of Christmas, but it has been attested as a surname and male forename in England since the 12th century; it was probably originally used for children born or baptised on Christmas day.
In the early 14th century, from its use as a word shouted or sung to commemorate the birth of Christ, French Noël became an interjection expressing joy. This latter use first appeared in English in The Franklin’s Tale, by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400):
Janus sit by the fyr, with double berd,
Janus sits by the fire, with double beard,
And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;
And drinks the wine from his buffalo horn;
Biforn hym stant brawen of the tusked swyn,
Before him stands meat of the tusked boar,
And “Nowel” crieth every lusty man.
And “Noel” cries every lusty man.
But in French as in English, this use of Noël as an exclamation is now obsolete except in Christmas carols.
In French, noël has had the sense of Christmas carol since the mid-16th century. It was first mentioned in this sense in an English text by the composer and author Thomas Busby (1754-1838), who wrote, in A Complete Dictionary of Music. To which is prefixed, a familiar introduction to the first principles of that science (1786):
Noels. Certain canticles, or songs of joy, formerly sung at Christmas in the country churches in France. The name is derived from the Latin word natalis, and alludes to the nativity.
IN THE ROMANCE LANGUAGES
The o in French Noël is due to dissimilation of the first a of natalis, whereas Christmas is:
– Natale in Italian (the adjective natale means native, of one’s birth.)
– Natal in Portuguese (the adjective natal means native.)
– Nadal in Catalan.
In Spanish, Christmas is Navidad, from Late Latin nativitas/-atis, nativity.
The Romanian name is Crăciun, perhaps from Latin creationem in the sense of child, i.e. baby Jesus. (Similarly, Spanish has the noun crío, feminine cría, which means child, kid, and is from the verb criar, to cause, produce, to bring up, raise, to nurse, suckle, feed, from Latin creare, to bring forth, produce, create.) Crăciun is used as a surname and forename.