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Christmas songs offer chance to increase your seasonal vocabulary

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion


Lorie Palmer

Have you been singing along with Christmas songs, heard a word or phrase, and wondered, “Hmmm. What’s that mean?” only to go on and forget about it until the next year when the song rolls around again?

Here’s a few of the more unusual words or phrases from some popular Christmas songs and what they mean:

• Figgy pudding: Words in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – bring me some figgy pudding! — seem pretty straight forward – pudding made from figs, right? Not so. Apparently, there aren’t usually any figs in figgy pudding. It’s actually more like cake than pudding and is made of dried fruit, seasonings such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and – so I have read — a boatload of booze.

• Wassailing: From the Wassail Song (“Here we go a wassailing!”) It sounds very cheery. But what exactly is wassailing? Well, by most accounts, wassailing includes drinking large amounts of alcohol and being very merry, noisy and lively and going from house to house singing Christmas carols. (Does wassailing sound more fun than Christmas caroling?)

• Bobtails: From Jingle Bells, when “bells on bobtails ring.” Apparently, this makes spirits bright –but what is it? A 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. In Jingle Bells, bells have been tied to the horse’s tail and when they flick them or run through the snow, the bells ring.

• Coursers: This is from Clement C. Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (or, as it was originally named, “A Visit from St. Nicolas”) poem: More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name. What are coursers? A courser is defined as a huntsman who hunts small animals with fast dogs that use sight rather than scent to follow their prey. So, either Santa is comparing his reindeer to these coursers or we have the whole story confused.

• Verdant: In “O Tannenbaum” (or, more familiarly, O Christmas Tree), the phrase is “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree! How are thy leaves so verdant! So, what does verdant mean? Green. A lush, beautiful green. And while we’re on that, what’s with “Tannenbaum?” It’s just the German word for Christmas tree.

• Auld Lang Syne: This is one of the most famous songs we hear and sing each year’s end, but what does it mean? It is literally translated from Scottish to English as “times long past.” The words were penned by poet Robert Burns and are actually quite beautiful: Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

So, the next time you sing or listen to these holiday songs, think about the words. Maybe next year we’ll get to some of the interesting phrases such as “frolic and play, the Eskimo way,” from Winter Wonderland or “Say, what’s in this drink?” from Baby It’s Cold Outside.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas. Drink a cup of kindness – and give a few away.

Lorie Palmer loves Christmas. She started watching Hallmark Christmas movies on Oct. 25 this year and on Nov. 1 decorated her bathroom in full Christmas attire. She has been listening to Christmas CDs in her vehicle since Nov. 2. Her motto is, “The season passes by too quickly. Enjoy it as long as you can.”


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