They’re playing those songs, everywhere and repetitively, and I’m really not one to get tired of it. But while singing along, some questions rise. There are 9 phrases in popular Christmas carols or holiday songs that either I, or many others, just don’t get. So let’s meet them head on and see if we can’t learn something today.
Forget My Old Acquaintances?
“Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind” (from Auld Lang Syne) is a question, not a statement. And it’s certainly not a suggestion. It’s a rhetorical question, asking us “Is it right for us to forget old acquaintances and never think of them? Of course not!” Far from encouraging us to disregard anyone, these lyrics warn us not to ignore the old just because the new is coming in. Old acquaintances are valuable, and this time of year (and indeed, during this season of my life) that’s clearer than ever.
I Thought Trolls Were Just for Facebook
“Troll the ancient yuletide carol” (from Deck the Halls) does NOT mean drag it around and see what you catch, as you would when trolling through waters. Nor does it suggest lurking in blogs with contrary comments, and it certainly doesn’t reference an ancient carol named Troll. To “troll” meant, at the time the song was written, to sing heartily and/or in succession, as you would when singing a round.
Some songbooks have actually revised the word to “toll”, suggesting we “toll the ancient yuletide carol” as we would toll a bell. That’s a nice thought, and it certainly works when you sing it, but it’s not the intended meaning of the original lyrics. The song in its true form tells us what to do and how, proving there really is such a thing as a redemptive troll.
The word shows up most famously in “Here We Come a Wassailing”, a friendly, fun carol not sung nearly as often now as it was when I was a kid. (Though it is featured in the 1994 film version of Little Women.) It refers both to the old English greeting Waes Hail – “Be Ye Healthy” – and to a hot cider drink of the same name. To wassail, then, can mean to bring friendly greetings, or to imbibe, or both. You can find the word in poems and other lesser-known holiday songs.
It’s a term evoking cheery imagery, but some sources cite early examples of wassailing degenerating into drunken home invasions and violent behavior. Evidently old English customs (carried on occasion to the New World) included the availability of large wassail bowls spiked generously, and you can imagine the outcome. Still, like so many holiday rituals or concepts, it can be dark or lovely.
Bob Has a Tail
“Bells on bobtails ring”, we declare while singing Jingle Bells, but until looking it up tonight, I never knew we were describing a feature of the horse. Somehow bobtails sounded to me like a fixture on a sleigh, but that’s not it at all. When a horse’s tail is cut short, it’s “bobbed”, a common term for hair cutting and shaping. Then, for a festive holiday touch, bells are attached to the bobbed horse tail, causing a light, ongoing ring as he trots along. Now it makes sense when we describe the effect of it all: “Making spirits light.”
Auld Lang Who?
“Auld Lang Syne” is a Scottish phrase meaning “times gone by”, “long ago”, or “days gone by.” The poem, and later the song by the same title, were written in the 1700’s, but not as a holiday song, and originally having no intended connection with New Year’s Eve. The phrase auld lang syne, in fact, appears in poetry pre-dating the song associated with it by decades.
Some sources credit bandleader Guy Lombardo, whose New Year’s Eve shows were broadcast live over radio and television for decades, with forging the link between Auld Lang Syne and the stroke of midnight. According to these sources, in 1929 Lombado’s band played the song as a segue between two December 31 radio broadcasts, the time of that segue happening to be 12:00. The sentimental lyrics captured the New Year’s Eve mood perfectly, everyone loved it, and so the tradition of the song marking the hour was born.
That may have happened, and in fact might also have cemented its popularity as a New Year’s Eve tradition in the West. But other sources indicate Scotsmen were singing Auld Lang Syne to welcome in the New Year long before Lombardo was born. Regardless, it might be fun to sing the next New Year’s Eve we can get together in person, if you’re still up and about past midnight on the 31st. In a big group where it’s sung heartily, it really can get to you.
High Tide, Low Tide, Yule Tide
The terms “yule” and “yule tide” are used so frequently in association with Christmas, it may be a surprise to note they originally referenced a season more than a holiday. “Yule” appeared in the ancient Germanic calendar as a period in the December-January months, but not related to Christmas. (In fact it was associated with heathen celebration long before we incorporated it.) It’s now often seen as the period between December 24-January 6, “yule” meaning Winter and “tide” referring to season or period. So while neither yule nor tide specifically mean “Christmas” or even “holiday”, they do mean the time of year we celebrate Christ’s birth, hence the close connection between the two.
You Want Me to Put On What?
“Don we now our gay apparel” (from Deck the Halls) was written a long ago time when that word meant what it really means, so quit smirking.
“Gloria” I Get, But That Other Stuff’s Hard to Say
“Gloria In Excelsis Deo” (from Angels We Have Heard on High) is Latin for “Glory to the Lord on High”, making the chorus of this beloved carol a literal doxology. If you’re going for correct pronunciation while singing it, try GLORIA-EEN-ECK-SHELLS-EES-DAY-OH. I’m guessing a lot of you already knew that.
If I Knew What It Was, I’d Get You Some!
Figgie Pudding is demanded in We Wish You a Merry Christmas, a song I’ve always found a little strange.
It starts off nice, with kind Christmas and New Year wishes for us and our kin in the first verse. But once the carolers get us out on the porch and start singing the later verses, it gets scary.
They start demanding food, and we don’t even know these people. Worse yet, this is no Trick or Treat stuff they’re asking, easily granted with a few candy bars. No, they want pudding.
You heard me. Pudding, and not just any pudding, but the Figgie variety. These folks are as demanding as they are picky, specifying the type of pudding we’re to provide, warning us that they won’t go until they get some, and like grouchy restaurant patrons, they bark, “So bring it right now!”
Dreading the thought of these singing terrorists squatting in the yard over the holidays, we google “Figgie Pudding” and find, to our delight and relief, a number of easy to follow recipes. Really, the stuff looks delicious. Figs, dates, flour and sugar, mix and bake, and voila! An ugly incident has
I guess the stuff has been around for centuries, enjoying a long history of feeding happy guests at holiday celebrations, and I appreciate that. But come on, now – Christmas may be the only day of the year left during which people generally agree to practice their manners. So if you’d like me to whip you up some pudding, you could ask least throw in a “please.”
But that’s just me. Hope you’re safe, healthy, and blessed. Hope you’re shopping’s going well whatever creative form it’s taken this year, and I hope that these days leading up to The Big One are joyful in the truest sense.