10 Archaic Christmas Carol Words Explained

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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.”

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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."

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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.”

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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.

Can You Spot the Christmas Stocking in This Hidden Image Puzzle?

It's time for another hidden image puzzle! This time, Lenstore.co.uk's Can You Spot It? puzzle features a smattering of Yule-themed objects like Santa hats, gingerbread men, snowmen, presents, and Christmas trees. Can you find the lone Christmas stocking hidden among them?

According to Lenstore.co.uk, it takes most people around 45 seconds to find objects in most of their hidden-image puzzles, and women tend to be faster at finding them than men. (Try out some of the previous puzzles here, here, and here.)

Before you peek at the answer, read up on the history of the Christmas stocking here. Like many Christmas traditions, its origins are pretty unclear, but one thing is for sure: We should all be grateful that we've long since moved on from stringing up the regular socks we wear every day.

Scroll down to see the answer, then try your hand at one of our close-up image quizzes.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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