It’s that time of year when we tune into the local Christmas station on the radio. After a five-minute commercial block, you hear some pop star over-sing a traditional, public domain holiday song. This type of Christmas album is, as Lucy Van Pelt tells Charlie Brown, “a big commercial racket.”
While the pop stars cash in on traditional songs without owing royalties to the original authors, I catch myself listening to the unique, seasonal lyrics. In fact, many of our Christmas songs have strange, almost archaic terms in them. Let’s unpack a few of these old-fashioned words.
The first term is an antiquated word duo: lo and hark. We find the word “lo” in both “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” It’s a word used to call attention to something.
We find “hark” in the well-known carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” “Hark” means to tell someone to listen or to pay attention. Both “lo” and “hark” are ways to get people’s attention in an exclamatory way. They are the modern equivalent of “Hey!” or “Listen up!”
When’s the last time you “trolled the ancient Yuletide carol”? For me, it’s been a while. In modern times, “troll” means to harass someone on the internet by making controversial comments, usually in an obnoxious way. When “Deck the Halls” was written in 1862, “troll” meant to sing in a “full, rolling voice” or to “chant merrily or jovially.”
In the lesser-known second verse of “Jingle Bells,” we hear the line “We got into a drifted bank / And then we got upsot.” With some context clues, you can surmise that the person singing the song, along with Miss Fanny Bright, somehow crashed the sled into a snowbank.
When “Jingle Bells” was written in 1857, “upsot” meant literally to capsize or get turned over. It also meant to become upset.
Let’s tackle the strange word “Yule.” Is yule a type of nog? Is it a misspelling of “you’ll?” Yule (sometimes called “Yuletide” or “Yulefest”) began as a pagan celebration in Scandanavia. As Christianity often did, it absorbed the holiday of Yule and replaced it with the celebration of the birth of Jesus, observed in the “mass of Christ,” or “Christmas.” As Yule took place from late December to early January, Christmas took over the calendar spot from the displaced holiday.
The next time you hear an autotuned, nasal rendition of an old holiday tune, at least you’ll know what some of these bygone terms mean.
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