For many, the first sign of the holiday season is walking into any department store and hearing Christmas carols playing. Whether you love “Jingle Bells” every time you hear it or feel immense torture, those Christmas tunes are ingrained in our culture (and our brain matter). Carols have a lot of weird, old-timey words, and it’s worth knowing what all those old tunes are ring-ting tingling about.
Before anyone ever jingled some bells or harkened any angel heralds, carol had an entirely separate meaning.
- Initially, a carol referred to "a ring of people holding hands and dancing in a circle, typically accompanied by song," pointing to the word’s Old French root carole, which meant the same thing.
- That definition eventually got generalized to refer to "a joyful song," ring-dance or not.
- “A joyful song” became more specifically “a hymn of religious joy,” which then naturally evolved to include “a Christmas hymn of joy.”
These days, even that definition has gotten a little broader to include basically any Christmas song, hymn or not.
Confusingly, the most well-known instance of carol is A Christmas Carol, which isn’t actually a carol at all. It’s a novella by the late, great Charles Dickens, and the full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
It’s hard to say why exactly Dickens categorized his story as a carol, but there’s something to the repetition of the story every holiday. Much like an actual carol, A Christmas Carol has burrowed its way into people’s minds, enough that you can probably retell it without ever having the original text.
One of the stranger lines of the classic Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” mentions something called Yuletide.
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la la la la!
“The Christmas Song,” made popular by the great Nat King Cole, also mentions Yuletide.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
Despite the tide, yuletide has nothing to do with the ocean. Simply put, it’s a word for the Christmas season. Tide here is from an Old English word meaning “a point or period of time.”
Yule (pronounced “yool”) is a noun that initially referred to December or January. It was also apparently used as an exclamation of joy during Christmas celebrations. Both yule and yuletide are largely obsolete today outside of greeting cards and a handful of Christmas songs.
The opening verse of “Deck the Halls” confidently requests:
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Bough (pronounced “bau”) refers to a tree branch. Holly is an evergreen plant that stays green all year. While it usually appears as a shrub, it can also grow into a full tree with long branches and holly leaves sprouting from those branches. When you cut one of those holly branches, you get a bough of holly.
The first part of that verse (deck the halls) can be confusing for any modern English speaker. In modern parlance, you don’t really see deck as a verb, unless it means "setting up a deck" (essentially, a type of wood patio or raised platform) or decking someone (slang for "knocking someone out").
The deck in deck the halls refers to "the act of covering something with garments, clothes, or decorations." In full, the line means you should decorate your halls with holly branches.
Speaking of tides, the reprise of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” offers some warm but potentially confusing wishes.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year
Tidings is an archaic word that means “something that happens” or simply “news or information.” In other words, the song is talking about bringing you and your family some good news. Though it’s hard to say if it’s a general promise of good news or if the good news is “a merry Christmas and a happy new year.”
You’ll find this delicious phrase in one of the memorable verses from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring some out here
Despite the rude request (not a single “please” to be found!), those of us who don’t live in the U.K. are probably wondering, “What in the world is a figgy pudding?” Alternately known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding, figgy pudding is a type of dessert consisting of a steamed cake that contains brandy, dried fruits, and spices.
Figgy pudding can be a bit of a misleading name for Americans because figgy here acts as an adjective meaning “containing or resembling figs,” but it traditionally can also refer to any sort of dried fruit. Figs aren’t out of the question, but they’re not the norm for a figgy pudding.
Pudding is used in the British English sense here, too. While those in America might be thinking of the semi-gelatinous, custard-like dessert, Brits refer to basically any dessert as pudding.
“We Three Kings” recalls the biblical journey of the Three Kings (sometimes the Three Wise Men or Three Magi) to meet baby Jesus and the gifts that they present.
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.
Instead of a toy or a PS5, one of the kings offers frankincense. Frankincense is a type of aromatic resin that comes from various trees native to Asia and Africa. It can be used in perfumes or included in pharmaceuticals, but frankincense is most commonly burned as an incense in religious and spiritual ceremonies.
The next verse in “We Three Kings” mentions the offering of myrrh to baby Jesus.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Boy, that whole verse is a real bummer to actually read out. Myrrh is similar to frankincense. It’s also a type of gum resin used in incense and perfumes, though myrrh has historically been used more in medical applications as a potential pain reliever.
The English language has gone through all kinds of changes, and Christmas carols are a surprisingly great indicator of how amorphous and weird language can get.
Some other words you might stumble across when listening to Christmas tunes:
- bobtail - a style of a horse’s tail wherein the tail has either been cut short or tied to appear shorter (“Bells on bobtail ring,” from “Jingle Bells”)
- hark - a command to listen attentively (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”)
- quaffing - drinking heartily (“Laughing quaffing all together,” from “Deck the Halls”)
- thy - possessive form of thou, equivalent to your (“How lovely are thy branches,” from “O Christmas Tree”)
- troll - to sing in a full, loud, rolling voice (“Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” from “Deck the Halls”)
- wast - an archaic form of was (“Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor”)
- ye - an archaic form of you (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”)
- yon - yonder (“Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,” from “Silent Night”)