Have you ever listened to a Christmas carol and thought, “Wait… what did they say?!" What does it mean to "deck" the halls, anyway? 🤔 These seasonal songs are filled with some really unusual expressions and vocabulary, called fossil words: words that are now used in only specific contexts, especially in idioms. Some non-seasonal fossil words are in the phrases “the whole shebang,” “to and fro,” and “let bygones be bygones.” But Christmas carols are especially full of fossils! In fact, many words in Christmas songs date back to Old English or Middle English, and even other languages like Dutch and Old Norse!
Christmas is such an old holiday that many fossil words continue to live on—and you help them live on, whether you're singing along in a choir, at an ugly sweater party, or when holiday songs start playing on every radio station in November. Here's what's hidden away in your favorite carols!
Why are they called Christmas "carols"?
First, you may be wondering why we call them Christmas carols, and not Christmas songs 🤔 Well, "carol" itself is actually a fossil word! Carole was a French word for a dance performed in a circle. Centuries ago, it was applied to English songs with a refrain that repeated after each verse, and the word "carol" became associated with song instead of dance.
Fossils buried in "Deck the Halls"
"Deck the Halls” was originally written in 1862 by Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant and set to the tune of an even older Welsh New Year's song. Here are three fossilized phrases to listen for in this Christmas carol:
🎶 Deck the halls with boughs of holly 🎵
AKA: Cover the halls with holly boughs
Spot the fossils!
🔎 Deck. This word came from the Dutch decken, meaning “to cover” and eventually took on the meaning "to decorate." This can mean literally putting up wreaths or bows of pine, cedar, balsam, etc., but now you'll also hear it used for hanging stockings, putting candles in the window, hanging mistletoe, and prepping for St. Nick himself! Because it has survived as a fossil in this song, we now see this in the names of brands and events.
🎶 Don we now our gay apparel 🎵
AKA: Put on bright and cheery clothes
Spot the fossils!
🔎 Don. This verb is an old way of saying “to put on.” (BONUS: the opposite of "don" is "doff" (to take off), which is also a fossil in the phrase to doff one's hat.)
🔎 Gay. Until the 20th century, "gay" was very frequently used to mean "happy" or "joyful," and in this carol it means especially flashy or finely dressed!
🎶 Troll the ancient yuletide carol 🎵
AKA: Heartily 🎶sing 🎶 that really old Christmas (or Pagan Winter Solstice Feast) song!
Spot the fossils!
🔎 Troll. Wow, this one is wacky! "Troll" dates back to the 16th century and originally meant to sing in a full, rolling voice—not, amazingly, to mess with somebody on the internet.
🔎 Yuletide. Also a weird one! "Yuletide" or "yule" is basically an old term for the Christmas season. "Yule" dates back to around the year 900 from the Old English word geōl, meaning Christmas. The word was related to the Old Norse jōl, which was the 12-day Pagan Feast to celebrate the Winter Solstice. During this time, a yule log would traditionally be burned. (Now you can watch the yule log on YouTube!) "Tide" is a word that meant season, so by the 15th century "Yuletide" was used for the Christmas season and also the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice.
Fossils buried in "Here We Come A-Wassailing"
The name of this song may sound unfamiliar, but you've probably heard it—and you've probably been making up your own lyrics for it! Maybe you've thought, “Are these people begging for beer and moldy bread and talking about a weasel?” Honestly, the entire song does not make much sense unless you know about the fossilized word "wassailing"!
🎶 Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green 🎵
AKA: Here we come asking for some holiday drinks
Spot the fossils!
🔎 Wassailing. This word is actually an earlier form of caroling! It was an Anglo-Saxon tradition dating to the 13th century where people would go door to door in hopes of being rewarded with a hot, spiced beverage known as wassail.This drink is similar to hot spiced cider, mulled wine, hot wine, or glühwein, and even eggnog is distantly related! At first, wassailers didn’t even sing: It wasn’t until St. Francis of Assisi encouraged his congregation to embrace holiday songs. People enjoyed the songs so much, they began singing them at home, and eventually when they went door-to-door. Then the wassailers began “trolling the ancient yuletide carol” (as you do), in the tradition that eventually became known as caroling.
Fossils buried in "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Tidings of Comfort and Joy)"
One of the earliest carols has some comma drama, in addition to its actual fossils!
🎶 God rest ye merry, gentlemen 🎵
AKA: May God grant you gentlemen peace and happiness (Or: “Stay merry, y’all!”)
Spot the fossils!
🔎 Ye. This little fossil is an old pronoun for talking to groups of people—like the way English speakers today say "you all," "y'all," "yinz," or many other variations! It's still used today in some English dialects, including in Ireland. But "ye" also comes from a time when English had a more elaborate noun case system: Today we say "you all see the book" and "I see you all," with the same "you all" no matter its position in the sentence, but we used to have different words! "Ye" was what we said for the subject of a sentence ("Ye see the book")... so actually, it shouldn't be "ye" in this lyric at all! But "ye" sounded old-fashioned when this carol was first popular, so it made its way into this lyric anyway, even though no one would have said "God rest ye" even in the olden days. 🤯 Interestingly enough, some modern versions of the song do actually write the title as “God rest you merry gentlemen”!
🔎 Merry. Ah, you didn't think this would be one of the fossils, did you? Long ago, “merry” had two uses: as an adjective (things could be "merry") and as an adverb (things could be done merrily, but with the word "merry"!). Even though this "merry" looks familiar to us, in this carol lyric, it's being used as an adverb… which means, it's not describing the gentlemen!
🔎 Rest. Today, "rest" means "to relax," but that wasn't always the case for this fossil. In centuries past, it meant "to cause to continue" or "to stay," and you would actually "rest something"... like maybe you wanted some people to continue being merry! So you'd want to rest them merry 💡 In this carol, the idea was the God would be causing y'all to stay merry!
But that's not even the whole story!
Because of the combination of fossils in this carol—rest and merry, which are fossils to us today, and ye, which was a misinterpreted fossil even when the lyrics were written—today's lyric is a sort of Frankenstein of linguistic fossils! This leads to confusion about "merry," where the comma goes, and what it's meant to be doing there. You might see the line as “God rest ye, merry gentlemen” with "merry" describing "gentlemen" (the gentlemen are merry), and it even appears this way in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in 1843!
That's because by the time Dickens was writing, "ye" was already a fossil word for "you all," and the usage of "merry" had changed, causing Dickens himself to use it incorrectly and mis-punctuate the sentence! For Dickens, “merry” could only describe the noun “gentlemen,” so he moved the comma after “ye”—in other words, the speaker is wishing these merry gentlemen to rest!
Fossils buried in "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year"
Our last song actually does not have to do with fossil words, but shows that carols can be a time capsule for traditions we’ve long forgotten, too. One such tradition is that ghost stories were popular to tell in Victorian times! In fact, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is technically a ghost story as well as one of the most famous Christmas stories. Listen for this phrase:
🎶 There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago 🎵
AKA: Well, the meaning is clear, but does this mean The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas movie?
Spot the fossils!
🔎 Ghost stories, like yule, are related more to the Pagan traditions around the Winter Solstice. Originally, this time of year was thought of as dark and spooky. One fun activity to do during this time (without electricity) was to sit by the fire and tell scary stories! This was especially popular in Victorian era England, hence why Charles’ Dickens “A Christmas Carol” is essentially the most famous one of these stories, and why ghost stories are referenced in this Christmas carol.
🎶 Oh what fun it is to dig for fossils everyday! 🎶
Now you know the connection between fossils and carols (and ghosts, too)! This season, take a look (and listen!) around you to see what other linguistic fossils you can dig up!