Deciphering A Few Old-fashioned Terms In Our Favorite Christmas Carol Lyrics

Happy Holidays!

Have you ever really studied the lyrics of some of our older and favorite Christmas Carols that most have committed to memory over the years and joyously sing during the holiday season?

How many children know what a “bobtail” is today?

And how about — “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la la la la!” from the “Deck The Halls” song?  “Troll?”   Say what?!? Really!??  Singing about the large and sometimes nasty, mythical creatures of Scandinavian folklore and J. R. R. Tolkien stories at Christmastime?

So, with a little help from the folks at Word Genius, let’s dig into and unravel a few of the mystery words in some of our traditional Christmas Carols.

Tannenbaum

Let’s begin with an easy one most probably do know already – “Tannenbaum”.

The song many of us know as “O Christmas Tree” nowadays was originally known as “O Tannenbaum”. The word “Tannenbaum” literally translates to “Fir Tree” in the German language.

In older days, it also meant “Christmas Tree”, although it is less commonly used today. In Germany, folks also say ‘Der Weihnachtsbaum”, or “The Christmas Tree.”


Hark

Another many likely know already is “Hark”, as in “Hark! The herald angels sing, . . .”

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written in 1793. The word “hark” is derived from the Old English verb “hearken”, which means to “listen”.  In the 19th century, the word “hark” was also used as a hunting call to gain attention. Today, the word is mostly only used when singing the Christmas Carol.

And, of course, one of the uses of the word “Herald” means an official messenger bringing news.


Jubilee

The word “Jubilee” is an older word, meaning a celebration.

So, in the song lyrics of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, as sung by Bing Crosby back in my time, the line “The kids and girls in boy land, Will have a jubilee” means that the kids will have a celebration.

The word “Jubilee” has been in the English language since the 14th century when it was used to designate the anniversary of the emancipation of the enslaved Hebrews. In the modern day, it still means “celebration.”



Yuletide

The word “Yuletide” is another older term for the Christmas season. In the Song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (one of my personal favorites!), the line “Make the Yuletide gay,” would primarily mean to make the Christmas season joyful and happy.


Bobtails

Ask any youngster what is “bobtail” means or what a “bobtail” is at Christmas and get ready for shrugged shoulders or quizzical looks. I would be willing to wager a chestnut roasting on an open fire that many adults do not know, either.

A “bobtail” is a short or docked tail of an animal, most notably used in describing horses and dogs. And bobtail cats, of course.

So, in the popular song “Jingle Bells” the line “Bells on bobtails ring, making spirits bright” refers to the horses’ tails being docked, tied up in holiday decorations and bells to brighten the holiday season.


Troll

No, we are not talking about the legendary Scandinavian trolls, nor the ones that turn to stone in the sunlight in the “Lord of the Rings” stories by J. R. R. Tolkien.

In this sense, the word “troll” means to sing out loudly in celebration. So, in the “Deck The Halls” song, the line “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la la la la!”, the word “troll” in this sense would mean to sing out loudly, joyously, and happily to celebrate the Christmas season.  (And there was that “Yuletide” word again!)


Figgy Pudding

“Figgy Pudding” is referred to in the “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” carol. Chances are, my English friends may be well ahead of my American friends and me on this one, so please feel free to correct me and/or add additional information in the comments.

As I understand it, literally “figgy” means ‘containing figs’ and “pudding” refers to a thick, soft dessert, usually containing flour (or some other thickener), milk, eggs, flavoring, and a sweetener. But, as if merely to confuse, “figgy pudding” doesn’t necessarily simply a combination of figs and pudding. As a matter of fact, sometimes “figgy pudding” doesn’t even contain figs, and there may be nothing pudding-like about it. Furthermore, it appears that “figgy pudding” was originally a savory dish, consisting of beef and mutton along with raisins, prunes, wine, and spices.

As I understand it, modern-day “figgy pudding is a sweeter recipe than in earlier times. Today, it is a Christmas staple similar to Fruitcake (which I love!), made with flour, sugar, spices, and dried fruit. In some recipes, the dried fruit may be figs, but it doesn’t necessarily have to contain figs to be called “figgy pudding.”

If you are still confused and would like to learn more about “Figgy Pudding”, I recommend this site → “What Is Figgy Pudding?”


Wassail

Here we go again, it seems. What in the world does “Wassailing” mean in the song “Here We Come A-Wassailing” many ask?

Apparently, the word “wassail” has been around since the 12th century or earlier. “Wassail” was from the Old Norse toast ves he’ll”, which meant“be well.”  As time went on, by the 14th century the word was used to describe a warm beverage enjoyed around Christmastime, such as a warmed wine or cider. On cold winter nights, Christmas Carolers enjoyed the warm beverages which, over time, gave rise to another meaning of “wassail” as a verb to describe riotous drinking and celebrating.

The term “wassailing” eventually became more and more associated with the practice of caroling and other Christmas festivities, which then in turn eventually resulted in the 1850 song that we know today — “Here We Come A-Wassailing”. Some may know it as “Here We Come A-Caroling.”


Did you know all of these old-fashioned words? Please let us know in the Comments. If nothing else, perhaps, these may serve to provide some interesting and fun trivia questions and discussions at holiday gatherings.

If you have little ones around (or those of any age who like to color), I invite you to check out LITTLE RED BEAR’S “CHRISTMAS & HOLIDAY SEASON” COLORING PAGES. Red and I have been busy adding new images every day this month and will continue doing so right up to New Year’s.

And we invite readers to visit our CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY FEATURES AND GALLERY to find interesting Christmas Feature Stories, Poems, Artworks, and more.

And lastly, we invite you to check out our most-visited holiday season page every year → LITTLE RED BEAR’S “HAPPY CHRISTMAS ‘LEFT/RIGHT’ GIFT EXCHANGE GAME” for a fun and entertaining gift exchange game featuring the Little Red Bear stories characters. We have been told that many times one game is not enough, as little ones and others simply turn the various gifts back in to restart and play all over again!

Thanks for visiting with us today!  Very best wishes for a Safe, Joyous, and Happy Holiday Season!  🤠 🐻  🎅 🎄

ps — Children (and others!) may enjoy coloring the singing Snowman and Carolers image below. Find a blank Coloring Page for the Snowman and Carolers image!


If you enjoyed this piece, you may also like — “I Will Greet This Day With Love In My Heart”  and “Wishing You Deep Peace, Love, Happiness, and Joy –  And A Very Good Day!” 

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https://www.wordgenius.com/do-you-know-these-words-from-old-timey-christmas-carols/Y4qI-BY2rgAHMEn1

4 thoughts on “Deciphering A Few Old-fashioned Terms In Our Favorite Christmas Carol Lyrics

  1. How fun, James! I’ve never looked at these songs too closely before, but it all makes sense now.
    Oh, and that, “Figgy Pudding?” After reading up on it, I think I’ll pass making it for our Christmas Eve dinner. 😉
    Have a wonderful Christmas and the best 2023 year, James!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for visiting with us, Rosie! I think that I “might” be okay with the modern-day Figgy Pudding because I love Fruitcake, but clearly not the old one with the suet and all. Best wishes for a wonderful holiday and time with your family. Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays! 🤠 🐻 🎅 🎄

      Like

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