10 Archaic Christmas Carol Words Explained

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iStock

Many of us sing Christmas songs without giving a second thought to the lyrics. But for those who are paying attention, there are some pretty ancient terms mixed in with all of the Fa-La-La-La-La-ing. Here are the meanings of 10 of them, perfect for impressing your friends and family as you gather ’round the piano—assuming anyone actually does that.

1. “BELLS ON BOBTAIL,” FROM “JINGLE BELLS.”

This is sometimes misheard as “Bells on Bob’s tail” or “Bells on Bobtail,” as if Bob or Bobtail is the name of the horse. But bobtail actually refers to the style of the horse’s tail—a tail cut short, or a tail gathered up and tied in a knot, which you sometimes see in dressage events these days.

2. “THERE WE GOT UPSOT,” ALSO FROM “JINGLE BELLS.”

This is in one of the often-ignored verses, but the full lyric goes, “The horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot, we ran into a drifted bank, and there we got upsot." According to Minnesota Public Radio, it means upset or overturned, as you can probably guess from the lyrics. Judging by its use in other poems and songs of the era, it can also mean upset in the emotional sense.

3. “TROLL THE ANCIENT YULETIDE CAROL,” FROM “DECK THE HALLS.”

Carolers
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In today’s lingo, this phrase gives us visions of mean people on the internet, ready to launch anonymous attacks on beloved Christmas songs. But in the 1800s, the word was often used with one of its now-little-known meanings: to sing loudly and clearly.

4. “PRAY YOU, DUTIFULLY PRIME YOUR MATIN CHIME, YE RINGERS; MAY YOU BEAUTIFULLY RIME YOUR EVETIME SONG, YE SINGERS,” FROM “DING DONG MERRILY ON HIGH.”

Matin refers to the morning prayers of the Anglican church. Although the definition of rime is actually a thin coating of ice, I suspect that it may just be an old, alternate spelling of rhyme.

5. “STILL THROUGH THE CLOVEN SKIES THEY COME,” FROM “IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR.”

If you’re like me, your first thought goes to “cloven hooves” and you wonder what that has to do with the birth of Jesus. The reason they’re called cloven hooves is because cloven means split or parted—the song is referring to the parting of the clouds in the skies for angels to come down and sing.

6. "THE HOLLY BEARS A BARK AS BITTER AS ANY GALL," FROM "THE HOLLY AND THE IVY."

Christmas holly
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Gall means rancor or bitterness of spirit, but it also means bile. I suppose bile doesn't often taste good.

7. “HOW ARE THY LEAVES SO VERDANT!” FROM “O CHRISTMAS TREE.”

Verdant simply means green.

8. “THEN PRETEND THAT HE IS PARSON BROWN” FROM “WINTER WONDERLAND.”

Parson can be a word for a member of the clergy, especially a Protestant pastor.

9. “THE CATTLE ARE LOWING, THE POOR BABY WAKES,” FROM “AWAY IN A MANGER.”

This is often misheard as “the cattle are lonely.” If you haven’t grown up in cattle country, you might not know this, but lowing is the deep, low sounds made by cattle. When a cow goes “moo,” it’s lowing.

10. “MORE RAPID THAN EAGLES HIS COURSERS THEY CAME” AND “SO UP TO THE HOUSE-TOP THE COURSERS THEY FLEW,” FROM “A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS.”

Santa and his reindeer flying
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Courser is another word for a fast horse, and the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (which has been much-disputed over the years) uses it to refer to reindeer as well.

A version of this piece originally ran in 2010.

10 Saccharine Facts About Sweetest Day

Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images
Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images

Unless you live in certain parts of the United States, there's a good chance you've never heard of Sweetest Day. For others, however, it's a century-old celebration. Here's what you need to know about the semi-obscure holiday.

1. THERE'S A REASON IT'S THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER.

This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the holiday was founded in 1916, trick-or-treating hadn't become popular yet, so though Halloween existed, there was no autumn boost to the candy industry like there is now. That's why the National Confectioners Association invented a mid-season marketing gimmick to help increase sales before Christmas. Naturally, they tried to spin it otherwise, writing that the spirit of the day should be "interpreted as a spirit of good will, appreciation, and good fellowship."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS "CANDY DAY."

A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the National Confectioners Association wanted the celebration to appear as if it was about more than just candy sales, the name they gave the holiday belied their efforts. It didn't become the slightly more subtle "Sweetest Day" until the 1920s.

3. HERBERT HOOVER WAS NOT PLEASED ABOUT IT.

In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Of course the year the holiday was founded, 1916, was smack in the middle of World War I. By the time the second annual day rolled around, Herbert Hoover, who was then the director of the U.S. Food Administration, reminded the National Confectioners Association that their consumerism creation wasn't exactly in the best interests of America's wartime efforts to conserve sugar.

In 1917, an industry bulletin called The International Confectioner noted, "As Mr. Hoover had requested everyone, everywhere, to cut down as much as possible on their usings of sugar, he considered that Candy Day was an effort on the part of our industry in the very opposite direction."

4. CELEBRITIES AND CAUSE MARKETING FINALLY DID THE TRICK.

Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once it was safe to increase sugar production again, marketing efforts kicked back into high gear. In 1921, Cleveland Candy Day organizers got the bright idea to tie the promotion into charity, giving sweets to orphanages and the elderly. Actresses Theda Bara and Ann Pennington went to Cleveland to help distribute thousands of boxes of candy, which helped further popularize the celebration.

5. THERE'S ANOTHER TALE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE HOLIDAY.

A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Hallmark, Sweetest Day came about because a candy company employee named Herbert Kingston simply wanted to spread joy to others and "bring happiness to the lives of those who often were forgotten." But The Atlantic calls this happy little story a complete fabrication, so take it with a grain of salt.

6. HALLMARK WAS LATE TO THE PARTY.

A man mailing a letter in 1960s New York.
Keystone, Getty Images

Though it's often referred to as a "Hallmark Holiday," Hallmark didn't actually get in on those sweet Sweetest Day profits until the 1960s—nearly 50 years after it was founded.

7. MOST SWEETEST DAY CARDS ARE ROMANTICALLY INCLINED.

This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the fact that Sweetest Day started as a way to hawk candy to the downtrodden, it's now just another Valentine's Day for many people. Hallmark makes more than 70 Sweetest Day cards—and 80 percent of them are romantic.

8. FOR SOME, IT'S MORE POPULAR THAN MOTHER'S DAY.

A little boy gives his mother some flowers
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

According to Retail Confectioners International, some retailers say their sales for Sweetest Day are better than their sales for Mother's Day. (Sorry, mom.)

9. THESE DAYS, SWEETEST DAY ISN'T JUST ABOUT THE CANDY.

Two women laughing together.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Though those commemorating the holiday can certainly buy candy, that's just one of the ways people can express their appreciation for anyone who might not otherwise have a special day (a favorite aunt, a next-door neighbor, the pet sitter). Various ways to celebrate Sweetest Day include flowers, cards, gifts, or simply just doing good deeds for others.

10. NEVER HEARD OF SWEETEST DAY? YOU'RE NOT ALONE.

An ice cream vendor in New York hands a young girl an ice cream in the 1920s.
Elizabeth R. Hibbs, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sweetest Day never gained as much ground nationally as it did in the Great Lakes region. The main states that celebrate sweetness on the third Saturday of October are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, though it has also spread to areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California. The biggest Sweetest Day cities are Detroit, Buffalo, and of course, Cleveland.

This story first ran in 2016.

Today is National Necktie Day in Croatia—Birthplace of the Necktie

Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images
Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images

If you're wearing a necktie to work today, you can thank (or blame) the Croatians for this stylish invention. The necktie's predecessor, a short knotted garment called the cravat, is a source of pride in this Western Balkan nation—so much so that they celebrate Cravat Day each year on October 18.

It's unclear when exactly the necktie was invented, but Croatian soldiers wore red cravats as part of their uniform during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). According to The Atlantic, Croatian mercenaries carried it to Western Europe that same century, and the French borrowed the idea and dubbed it the cravate. It became even more stylish when Louis XIV of France started wearing a lace cravat in 1646 at the tender age of 7, according to The Dubrovnik Times. The English eventually helped spread the accessory around the world, and it morphed into the elongated form we're most familiar with today.

In 1997, a nonprofit organization called the Academia Cravatica was founded to promote the cravat as a symbol of Croatian ingenuity. "By spreading the truth about the cravat, we improve Croatia's image in the international public," the organization states. "The fact that Croats invented the Cravat makes us proud to be Croats." (According to Time Out, Croatia also invented the first MP3 player, the zeppelin, the parachute, and fingerprint identification.)

The cravat is also tied up with national identity. The words Croat and cravat are etymologically linked, and were once different spellings of the same word. One sample sentence by David Hume in 1752 reads, "The troops are filled with Cravates and Tartars, Hussars, and Cossacs."

The holiday isn't normally a big to-do, but the county's capital city, Zagreb, occasionally gets pretty festive. In 2003, when the holiday first debuted in Croatia, the Academia Cravatica wrapped an oversized red necktie around Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater. It took two years to prepare and five days to install—and at 2650 feet long, it ended up being the largest necktie in the world, as recognized by Guinness World Records.

Cravat Day was formally declared a holiday by Croatian Parliament in 2008, and it's been a hallmark of Croatian culture ever since. A few events were planned in Zagreb today, including a march featuring the "city's famous Cravat Regiment." So if you happen to be in the Croatian capital, now you know why more than 50 historic statues are looking dapper in their red cravats.

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