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.”
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."
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.”
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.