History of ‘Deck the Halls’

The Christmas carol Deck the Halls has a long history that begins in Wales, where the music was a dancing song that dates back to at least the sixteenth century. The first published lyrics for the song were written by the Welsh poet John Ceiriog Hughes and titled “Nos Galan,” which means New Year’s Eve. Here’s his original lyrics converted to English, with the fa-la-las between each line left out:

Cold is the man who can’t love,

The old mountains of dear Wales,

To him and his warmest friend,

A cheerful holiday next year.

To the troubled, cold are the bills,

Which come during the holidays,

Listening to a sermon in one verse,

Spending more than you earn,

Cold is the snow on Mount Snowdon,

Even though it has a flannel blanket on it,

Cold are the people who don’t care,

To meet together on New Year’s Eve.

Dr. Ian Bradley, a Scottish theologian who researched the song, said that it came from North Wales and also was known as the Nantgarw Flower Dance. “Originally carols were dances and not songs,” he told Wales Online last year.

In a 1999 post on the Minstrel mailing list, Monica Hultin writes that the song originated as a dance with improvised lyrics between either harp notes or sung syllables:

It belongs to the competitive canu penillion tradition, in which merry makers would dance in a ring around a harpist, extemporizing verses in turn and dropping out when invention failed. The harp originally played the “answering” bars … but nonsense syllables came to be substituted as harpers became less common.

The current lyrics to the carol have been sung for a century and are of American origin. They may have come from Welsh miners who emigrated to the Appalachian Mountains.

When you sing “fa la la la la, la la la la” this Christmas, think about how those notes were intended to buy time until a dancer could come up with the next lyric. As nice as the song is, it’s almost a shame that nobody makes up their own words.

Olive the Other Reindeer


This year marks the 10th anniversary of the TV special Olive the Other Reindeer, which originally aired on Fox Dec. 17, 1999.  The show, based on a best-selling children’s book published two years earlier by writer Vivian Walsh and illustrator J. Otto Seibold, is one of the more charming additions to holiday lore in recent years.

The story is based on a mondregreen, a misheard word or phrase from a song or poem that takes on a life of its own.

The lead character is Olive, a dog who does not believe she’s a dog. When Blitzen the reindeer becomes injured and cannot fly, Santa says that he hopes to make the Christmas run with “all of the other reindeer.” Olive overhears this and reaches the mistaken conclusion that she’s the other reindeer. The television special features the voices of Drew Barrymore as Olive along with Ed Asner, Dan Castellaneta, Jay Mohr, Tim Meadows and Michael Stipe.

Simpsons creator Matt Groening was the executive producer for the special. He told Entertainment Weekly, “You know that sort of dull, queasy, headachy feeling you get around Christmas time when the house is too warm and kids are crying and dad’s passed out on the couch? This will cheer everyone up.”

Keeping Christmas

A sermon by the American educator and clergyman Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), originally published in 1905.

Romans, xiv, 6: “He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord”

It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. The mere marking of times and seasons, when men agree to stop work and make merry together, is a wise and wholesome custom. It helps one to feel the supremacy of the common life over the individual life. It reminds a man to set his own little watch, now and then, by the great clock of humanity which runs on sun time.

But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you; to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world; to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distnce, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground; to see that your fellow men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy; to own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness — are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children; to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts; to try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open — are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world — stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death — and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas,

And if you keep it for a day, why not always?

But you can never keep it alone.

Welcome to the New Site

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