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Deck The Halls: The History And Meaning Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol
In Depth

Deck The Halls: The History And Meaning Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol

Why do we ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’? And what is Deck The Halls’ history? This is the full story behind the Christmas carol.

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Fondly regarded as one of the best Christmas carols, Deck The Halls wasn’t actually written for Christmas. Dating back to the 1700s, the tune was originally a traditional Welsh air with a very different purpose and meaning from the version sung by choirs and carollers today.

This is the full story of Deck The Halls, and how a Welsh melody came to be used for one of the best Christmas songs of all time.

Listen to the best Christmas carols here.

The history behind Deck The Halls

Although Deck The Halls is now a Christmas standard, the song was originally sung on New Year’s Eve, and its history can be traced back to 18th-century celebrations in Wales. Under the name Nos Galan – Welsh for “New Year’s Eve” – it was first published by a Welsh harpist called Blind John Parry, who dictated the melody for transcription in the year 1781, when it appeared in British Harmony Being A Collection Of Antient Welsh Airs The Traditional Remains Of Those Originally Sung By The Bards Of Wales. During this time, Nos Galan was sung competitively, with new-year’s revellers trying to outdo each other in devising the most four-line verses to go with the tune.

The original Welsh lyrics to Deck The Halls

Far from being about decorating the home in anticipation of the holiday season, Deck The Halls – or Nos Galan, as it was still known into the mid-1800s – was originally a saucier song some of whose earliest printed Welsh lyrics translated as “Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom”, with references to frolicking in “the grove in blossom”.

Sample Welsh lyric for Nos Galan

O mor gynnes mynwes meinwen,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.
O mor fwyn yw llwyn meillionen,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.
O mor felus yw’r cusanau,
[instrumental flourish]
Gyda serch a mwynion eiriau
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

English translation

Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.
Oh! how blessed are the blisses,
[instrumental flourish]
Words of love, and mutual kisses,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

In an interview with CBC’s current-affairs show Daybreak South, Wyn James, a former lecturer in Modern Welsh Literature at Cardiff University, explained that Nos Galan’s lyrics “have nothing to do with Christmas at all”, before clarifying: “They actually refer to how lovely it is to be kissing a maiden in the clover.”

The English lyrics to Deck The Halls

Almost a full century on from Blind John Parry’s publication of Nos Galan, the song was given its first English lyrics, by Scottish musician and author Thomas Oliphant. Described as the “Poet of the court of Queen Victoria”, Oliphant, who often penned lyrics for royal events, was also known for setting English words to foreign-language melodies – not so much translating the songs as coming up with new lyrics which he felt fit the mood of the music.

Oliphant’s English lyrics for what he called Deck The Hall were first published in 1862, in the second volume of Welsh Melodies With Welsh And English Poetry, a collection of sheet music and lyrics authored by another Welsh harpist, the composer John Thomas. Alongside the original Welsh lyrics were Oliphant’s new words, which encouraged listeners to “Deck the hall with boughs of holly” in the run up to Christmas – “the season to be jolly”. But though Oliphant removed all references to romantic trysts, and made the song a Christmas carol rather than a New Year’s Eve song, his lyrics did carry traces of Deck The Halls’ history as a drinking tune, with a line – dropped from later variants of the carol – exhorting singers to “Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel”.

Original Deck The Halls lyrics

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
’Tis the season to be jolly:
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Troul the ancient Christmas carol.
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

See the flowing bowl before us,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Strike the harp, and join in chorus:
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Follow me in merry measure,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
While I sing of beauty’s treasure.
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses:
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Laughing quaffing all together,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Heedless of the wind and weather.
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Variations of the Deck The Halls lyrics

As published in the December 1877 edition of the Pennsylvania School Journal, just 15 years after its appearance in Welsh Melodies With Welsh And English Poetry Vol.2, Deck The Hall was again given a rewrite, with the line “Don we now our gay apparel” replacing the reference to draining the barrel of mead, and other lyrical tweaks (“blazing yule” for “flowing bowl”; “Sing we joyous” for “Laughing quaffing”) removing all trace of Deck The Hall’s history as a drinking song.

1877 Deck The Halls lyrics

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
’Tis the season to be jolly,
Don we now our gay apparel,
Troll the ancient Christmas carol,

See the blazing yule before us,
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Follow me in merry measure,
While I tell of Christmas treasure,

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Sing we joyous all together,
Heedless of the wind and weather,

Amid the lyric changes, “hall” was pluralised as “halls” in the early 1890s. The recurring “fa-la-la-la-la” lines were, however, always part of the original song, going back to the original Welsh version, Nos Galan; they are a trait of Middle Ages madrigals – a cappella tunes sung during the European Renaissance era.

What does “deck the halls” mean?

To “deck the halls” means to decorate the home in time for the Christmas season. Popular decorations in the modern era include Christmas trees festooned with such festive trinkets as baubles and bells; fairy lights, wreaths and tinsel are also common, and many households also place life-size inflatable figures, such as Father Christmas or a snowman, outside their homes during the holidays.

When Thomas Oliphant wrote of decking the halls “with boughs of holly”, however, he specifically meant branches from holly trees, whose distinctive spiky green leaves and bright red berries are now synonymous with Christmas.

Why do we deck the halls with boughs of holly?

Just like Deck The Halls – or Nos Galan – itself, the notion of using holly for decorative purposes has its roots in Welsh history. In Celtic mythology, holly, which retains its bright colouring during the dark winter days, was believed to ward of evil spirits, and for the Celtic druids the plant was a symbol of fertility.

In the Christian tradition, the sharp holly leaves symbolise the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion, and the red holly berries represent Christ’s blood.

Who has sung Deck The Halls?

Sung every year at Christmas time, Deck The Halls is a part of the cultural fabric. As early as 1881, Mozart used the tune for a duet between piano and violin, and the song has been recorded by everyone from country musician and “Nashville sound” architect Chet Atkins to church choirs around the world, who have made Deck The Halls a part of their seasonal repertoire.

In 1962, The Everly Brothers included a version of Deck The Halls, titled Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly, on what’s now regarded as one of the best Christmas albums of the original rock’n’roll era, Christmas With The Everly Brothers And The Boys Town Choir.

Though many rock and pop renditions – including those by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Joan Baez – have remained faithful to the notion of Deck The Halls as a traditional Christmas carol, Deck The Halls has also been reimagined as a big-band swing number and a short, scuzzy alt-rock instrumental.

One tongue-in-cheek version of Deck The Halls was recorded by Red Hot Chili Peppers, who released a short a cappella take as a jukebox-only single in 1994, the group rattling jingle bells and singing in exaggerated falsetto for laughs.

Almost three centuries on from its original incarnation as a New Year’s Eve drinking song, Deck The Halls can still inspire revelry, even in the unlikeliest of quarters.

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