10 Archaic Christmas Carol Words Explained

artisteer/iStock via Getty Images
artisteer/iStock via Getty Images

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.”

Three generations of a family at a door caroling
DGLimages/iStock via Getty Images

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, 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."

Close up of a branch of holly with red berries covered with snow
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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
iStock

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.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

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How the Doughnut Became a Symbol of Volunteerism During World War I

National WWI Museum and Memorial
National WWI Museum and Memorial

If you’ve ever eaten a free doughnut on the first Friday in June, you’ve celebrated the Doughnut Lassies—whether you realized it or not. National Doughnut Day was established to honor the Salvation Army volunteers who fried sugary snacks for World War I soldiers on the front lines. Some Doughnut Lassies were even willing to risk their lives to provide that momentary morale boost. One story from The War Romance Of The Salvation Army (written by Evangeline Booth, daughter of the Salvation Army’s founders) describes a volunteer serving doughnuts and cocoa to a troop under heavy fire. When she was told by the regiment colonel to turn back, she responded, “Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them.”

Frying on the Front Lines

The decision to serve doughnuts on the battlefield was partly a practical one. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the Salvation Army, a Christian charity organization, sent roughly 250 “salvationists” (who were mostly women) to France, where American troops were stationed. The plan was to bring treats and supplies as close to the front lines as possible. But the closer the volunteers got to the action, the fewer resources they could access.

“It was difficult creating the pies and cakes and other baked goods they thought they might be making,” Lora Vogt, curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, tells Mental Floss. “Instead, they realized the doughnut was a very efficient use of both the time and the ingredient resources. And you could make thousands of doughnuts in a day to feed all the men serving.”


Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance are credited with bringing doughnuts to the Western Front. They had a handful of ingredients at their disposal, including flour, sugar, lard, baking powder, and canned milk. Doughnuts were one of the few confections they could make without an oven, and once they had a fire hot enough to heat the oil, they could fry them up fast. The women had the pan to cook them in, but for other parts of the recipe, they had to get creative. In a pinch, grape juice bottles and shell casings became rolling pins; an empty baking powder can became a doughnut cutter; and a tube that had come loose from a coffeemaker punched the holes.

Sheldon and Purviance's pan could fit seven doughnuts at a time, and on day one, they made just 150 doughnuts for the outfit of 800 men. Those who were lucky enough to grab a morsel were smitten, with one exclaiming “Gee! If this is war, let it continue!” according to The War Romance Of The Salvation Army. The salvationists fine-tuned their operation, and were eventually making 5000 doughnuts a day. The snacks were so beloved, the volunteers earned the nickname Doughnut Lassies, while the soldiers they served were dubbed Doughboys.

The All-American Doughnut

The Doughnut Lassies’s impact didn’t end with World War I. Prior to the war, Americans hadn’t fully embraced the doughnut. Dutch immigrants enjoyed doughnuts in the country for decades, but they weren’t considered an integrated part of American cuisine. It was the U.S. soldiers’s experience with doughnuts overseas that popularized them back home. “You have millions who are serving on the front lines who then have a really lovely association with the doughnut who may not have had one before,” Vogt says.


World War I also contributed to doughnuts' popularity in a less direct way. The dessert appealed to U.S. bakers during wartime for the same reason the salvationists chose it: Recipes were adaptable and didn’t call for a ton of hard-to-source ingredients. “Crisco was putting out recipes for wartime doughnuts, and they suggested using Crisco as an alternative to lard because lard should be saved," Vogt says. "So you have this movement both on the front line and on the home front that let all Americans realize how delicious doughnuts could be.”

The Rise of National Doughnut Day

In 1938, the Salvation Army took advantage of its unofficial, sugary symbol and established National Doughnut Day to raise awareness of its charity work. Today, brands like Dunkin' and Krispy Kreme use the holiday as a marketing opportunity, but according to Vogt, the day is meant to be more about the Lassies’s service than the doughnuts they served. “National Doughnut Day is actually not about the doughnut. It is all about the Salvation Army volunteerism,” she says. “That concept of service and being able to share and build your community is part of what doughnut day is about.”

National Doughnut Day isn’t the only day dedicated to the treat in the U.S. A second National Doughnut Day falls on November 5, but the origins of that holiday aren’t as clear. If you want to enjoy some fried dough while commemorating a lesser-known part of World War I history, the first Friday in June—June 5, in 2020—is the day to remember.