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.”

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.

Vermont and Maine Are Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images

The narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus has shifted in recent years, leading some U.S. states and cities to reconsider glorifying the figure with his own holiday. If the governors of Vermont and Maine sign their new bills into law, the two states will become the latest places to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, CNN reports.

In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Bill went into effect, officially designating Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October. The holiday was originally meant to recognize the "discovery" of America—a version of history that erases the people already living on the continent when Columbus arrived and ignores the harm he inflicted.

As Columbus's popularity decreases in the U.S., some places have embraced Indigenous Peoples' Day: A day dedicated to Native American culture in history. The holiday is already observed in Seattle, Washington; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Alaska. Earlier this year, Sandusky, Ohio announced they would swap Columbus Day for Voting Day and give municipal workers the election Tuesday of November off instead.

Indigenous Peoples' Day has been celebrated in place of Columbus Day in Vermont for the past few years, but a new bill would make the change permanent. The Vermont state legislature has voted yes on the bill, and now it just needs approval from Governor Phil Scott, which he says he plans to give. If he passes the law, it will go into effect on October 14, 2019 (the date Columbus Day falls on this year).

Maine voted on a similar bill in March, and it gained approval from both the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Like Governor Scott, Maine governor Janet Mills plans on signing her state's bill and making the holiday official.

Regardless of the legal status of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations take place across the country every October. South Dakota hosts Native American Day festivities at the Crazy Horse Memorial each year, and in Seattle, Indigenous Peoples celebrations last a whole week.

[h/t The Washington Post]

6 Creative Recycling Efforts From Around the Globe

iStock.com/ElenaSeychelles
iStock.com/ElenaSeychelles

Recycling isn't—and shouldn’t be—limited to separating plastic cartons, junk mail, and tin cans for the garbage collector. This Earth Day, think outside the plastic bin, and brainstorm creative ways to convert or re-purpose old, discarded, or unexpected materials into something new and useful. Don't know where to start? Get inspired by one (or all) of the sustainable organizations and initiatives below.

1. The Shopping Center That Sells Recycled/Upcycled Items

The adage “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” rings true in Eskilstuna, Sweden. The metropolis is home to a shopping center, ReTuna Återbruksgalleria, which only sells upcycled, recycled, or sustainable merchandise. (The name ReTuna Återbruksgalleria combines Tuna, which is a nickname for the city; återbruk, which means “reuse” in Swedish; and galleria, which means mall.)

Patrons can drop off objects they no longer want or need at a designated recycling depot. Items that can be repaired are fixed and re-sold in the mall’s nine shops, which offer customers everything from furniture to clothing items to sporting equipment. Goods that can’t be sold are donated to needy institutions or organizations, or recycled.

2. The Mall That Feeds Its Food Waste To Hogs

A sign outside the Mall of America
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The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the nation’s largest shopping center—and it’s also vying for the title of “greenest.” In addition to LED parking garage lighting, water-efficient toilets, and thousands of air-purifying plants and trees, the mall annually recycles more than 2400 tons of food waste by donating it to a local hog farm. (If you’re an entrepreneur who’s interested in emulating the MOA’s large-scale food waste strategy, you can check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for getting started here.)

3. The Nonprofit That Transforms Flip-Flop Flotsam Into Art

Around 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Soda bottles, grocery bags, and six-pack rings aren’t the only plastic items polluting the world’s waterways and harming fish, turtles, and other animals: In 1997, marine conservationist Julie Church came across a beach in Kenya that was strewn with discarded flip-flops.

Church noticed children making toys from the debris, and convinced local women to collect, wash, and process the flip-flops into colorful art objects. This initiative grew into Ocean Sole, a fair-trade business that today collects flip-flop flotsam from Kenya's beaches and waters and transforms them into plastic sculptures, accessories, and trinkets. Ocean Sole's goal is to recycle 750,000 flip-flops per year, and the organization also provides business opportunities to women living in city slums and remote coastal areas.

4. The Company That Turns Used Diapers Into Usable Items

 
Founded in 1989, Knowaste is a Canadian company that recycles diapers and absorbent hygiene products (AHPs), such as baby diapers, feminine hygiene products, and incontinence pads. They've developed a way to strip them of their plastic and fiber, which they then use to make products like composite construction materials, pet litter, and cardboard industrial tubing.

5. THE ECOLOGICAL NONPROFIT THAT COLLECTS HAIR TO CLEAN UP OIL SPILLS

Work at a beauty salon or own a furry pet? Instead of tossing shorn or shed hair into the trash, donate it to Matter of Trust. The San Francisco-based ecological charity’s Clean Wave program collects hair and fur, and uses it to make oil-absorbing mats and stuff containment booms. Hazmat teams use these all-natural tools to clean up after oil spills, and public works departments use them to keep motor oil drip spills out of waterways.

In addition to large-scale donations from beauty salons, barbershops, and groomers, Matter of Trust also accepts smaller contributions from private individuals. If you’re interested in helping out, visit Matter of Trust’s website, register to participate in the nonprofit’s Excess Access recycling program, and follow the instructions to donate. The program’s need for hair and fur ebbs and flows, depending on the volume of recent donations. But in the case of an emergency oil spill, all donations are welcome. (Cases in point: Matter of Trust’s hair mats and booms were used to help clean up after both the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay and the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.)

6. The Nonprofit That Re-Purposes Old Crayons Into New Ones

As art supplies go, crayons are relatively cheap, making it all too easy and inexpensive to toss scuzzy, broken, and worn-down wax stubs into the trash and purchase new ones. But crayons are typically made from paraffin wax and aren’t biodegradable—so to keep old art tools from clogging landfills, a Northern California-based nonprofit called The Crayon Initiative collects unwanted crayons from restaurants and schools and melts them down to make fresh ones. Then, they donate the re-purposed goods to children’s hospitals. Family restaurants and schools can find out how to organize crayon donation drives online.

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current data.

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