Christmas songs: On city sidewalks and every street corner... from Black Friday through New Year's... they're broadcast inside and out, they stick in our heads, they are parodied and rewritten, and yet many of us, even as we sing along, don't give much thought to what the words mean.
Some of our confusion can be accounted for by mondegreens, or words we hear as other words (think "O come, lettuce adore him"). Two websites catalogue these often-hilarious confusions: KissThisGuy.com bills itself as "the archive of misheard lyrics," and AmIRight.com ("Making fun of music one song at a time") devotes an entire section to Christmas, testifying to how ripe for mondegreenery the genre is. Loaded like Santa's sleigh with words that we don't use anymore and syntax that has grown outmoded, carols, for all their familiarity, are pretty tricky to understand.
So without further ado, we bring you ten common Christmas carol vocabulary misperceptions explained.
1. Don is not a person, and gay apparel is not what it sounds like. ("Don we now our gay apparel"/"Deck the Halls")
Don means to put on, as in clothing or hats. Gay here means "fun" and "bright." Put it together and it means, let's get dressed up in our party clothes, or as Taio Cruz might put it: "I'm wearing all my favorite brands, brands, brands, brands."
2. "Silent Night" expresses no opinion on whether Mary was a little on the heavy side. ("Round yon virgin"/"Silent Night")
Thought by many to be "round young virgin," this phrase does appear to be commenting on Mary's shape. But round and young are not coordinate adjectives. Round is short for around, and relates to the previous line: "All is calm and bright/round," — or around — "yon virgin." Yon, a synonym for yonder, means, "over there." In other words, all is calm and bright over there around the mother, who is a virgin, and her child.
3. To certain is not a verb. ("Was to certain poor shepherds"/"The First Noel")
Some among us wonder what to certain is doing in this phrase. Is it an archaic verb? Were the angels reassuring the shepherds, making them feel more safe and certain that the savior they'd been waiting for had finally arrived? They were not. Certain is an adjective, meaning "some," as in "some poor shepherds." "The first Noel the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds..." means that the first news of the birth of Christ was delivered to some shepherds in the fields nearby.
4. "We" are not "wishing a merry Christmas" to your "king." ("Good tidings we bring/to you and your kin"/"We Wish You a Merry Christmas")
5. Believe it or not, there's another way to say moo. ("The cattle are lowing/the baby awakes"/"Away in a Manger")
What with "angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold," one can be forgiven for envisioning cattle leaning down to wake up the baby Jesus with a gentle nudge. But the verb low here is a synonym for moo, or other low noise typically made by bovines.
6. King Wenceslas did not ignore the food in front of him. ("Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen"/"Good King Wenceslas")
Many wonder why a king would bring flesh (meat), wine, and pine logs to a peasant's home when he was already looking out on a feast. Their confusion can be forgiven. The feast here is a feast day, not a meal, held in honor of St. Stephen in the Catholic Church on December 26th. Though not well known in the United States, the feast day is an official holiday in many Eastern European countries — in the UK, it's called Boxing Day.
7. Hopalong boots are not pogo sticks in boot form. ("A pair of hopalong boots"/"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas")
The fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy anchored a series of books and stories by author Clarence E. Mulford, a 66-film movie franchise starring movie actor William Boyd (1935-1948), and the first network television Western, which debuted on NBC in 1949. "Hopalong boots" would have been cowboy boots coveted by 1950s boys.
8. A noel is a song. ("The First Noel the angel did say"/"The First Noel")
In French, noel is the word for Christmas. It derives from an Old French word referring to the Christmas season, which likely came from the Latin natalis meaning "birth." In its English incarnation, noel refers to the season of Christmas, as well as to a Christmas carol. Therefore, "The First Noel" is not referring to the first Christmas. It's referring to the first Christmas carol that the angels sang to the shepherds.
9. A parson is a minister. ("And pretend that he is Parson Brown"/"Walking in a Winter Wonderland")
Perhaps whoever submitted the mondegreen "In the winter we can build a snowman/And pretend that he is sparse and brown" to AMIRight.com wasn't familiar with the word parson, which means minister. The snowman in the song is standing in for a parson so that he can "do the job" of marrying the romantically involved couple of the song.
10. Oxen, shepherds, and wisemen? Yes. Trolls? No. ("Troll the ancient yuletide carol"/"Deck the Halls")
If you check the Vocabulary.com Dictionary definition of troll, you'll see that in addition to top-of-mind assocations with monsters who guard bridges and wield clubs, or a fishing technique of dragging lines and hooks behind boats, troll can also mean "to sing loudly or without inhibition." To add to the confusion, contrast this form of singing with the sound a bell makes when it is tolling the hour.
Are there any lines from Christmas carols you find particularly confusing? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
Want to learn more vocabulary from holiday carols? Quiz yourself on Christmas carol vocabulary with this free, interactive Vocabulary List: Words for Carolers.