Wednesday, December 10, 2014 / Comment

Top 10 Most Misunderstood Christmas Song Lyrics

Ah, Christmas carols. Every year the same tunes bless us with their overwhelming presence, getting lodged firmly in our brains until sometime mid-July. And though many brave souls have attempted (successfully or not) to add to them over the years with more modern entries, most of the songs you’ll hear this season hark from the days of yore. While tradition is great and everything, not everything stays entrenched in our collective psyches as well as an unbearably catchy ditty. And so it has come to pass that there are a few interesting, often mistaken, commonly misunderstood lyrics in our favourite seasonal melodies. In fact, the situation is so common that there is even a term for misunderstood lyrics. So when you hear your friend hum along about a “proud young virgin” you can call them on their…“ mondegreen”.
Tis the season to hear Christmas carols everywhere you go, 24hrs a day, for the weeks on end until every shopper drops, bank account drains, and belt pops. Whether you revel in belting out the omnipresent, undeniably catchy tunes from October to January, or cringe at the very jingle of a bell, these songs will be a big part of your life for the next few weeks. Best to get those lyrics nailed down then.
1. Good King Wenceslas
Pick up thy rolls before I toss ye in yon snowbank
The Confusion: Who was King Wenceslas?
Why do we sing a carol about a King no one has heard of or can pronounce? Just who was this King Wenceslas anyway?
Well, this traditional carol was written in its current form in 1852 by a gentleman named John Jason Neale. The popularity and endurance of the song is owed largely to its catchy melody that was lifted directly from a 13th century Easter carol (yes Easter carols were a thing) rhapsodizing about the coming of spring.
So Neale decides to write about “King Wenceslas” (can be pronounced Wens-ess-loz or Wensless to make things more confusing) who is based on the historical 10th century Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. In life Wenceslaus was a noble, not a king, who was known for being a charitable fellow after several legendary biographies were written after his death. “Good King Wenceslas” was based on the legend that he would awake in the night and bring alms to the poor. He was posthumously elevated to kingly status by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I because why not, and declared a saint for good measure.
2. Here WeCome A-Wassailing
Wassailing tip: bring cups or instruments that can be used as cups
The Confusion: How does one go Wassailing?
The simple answer is wassailing = caroling. To go into more detail, wassailing is an ancient tradition most likely dating back to Anglo-Saxon times when people would go door to door singing Christmas carols. The term "wassail" derives from the Saxon toast of "Wæs þu hæl" meaning “Be thou hale” or “Be in good health”. In old middle English this was said "waes hael". In the middle ages wassailing was done on Twelfth Night when peasants would visit their feudal lords and sing in exchange for charitable giving. Perhaps dropping King Wenceslas's name wouldn't hurt.
3 & 4. Jingle Bells
Upsot indeed
The Confusion: Why do Bells on Bobtails ring
Bonus! How does one get Upsot?
Jingle Bells 2nd verse:
The horse was lean and lank 
Misfortune seemed his lot
We got into a drifted bank
And then we got "upsot"
Jingle Bells; what a delightful old carol full of whimsy, getting hammered and falling on your arse. If you’ve ever taken the time to sing and/or take in the full 4 verses of Jingle Bells you’ll know that it is about taking a fast-paced sleigh ride with your lady friend, getting quite drunk in the process, falling down a lot and getting laughed at by passers-by.
The second verse features the above line about driving a malnourished horse into a snow bank and getting "upsot" which is an obscure, olden times past-participle of “upset” AND/OR a popular slang term for being duly inebriated.
Jingle Bells 4th verse:
Just get a bobtailed bay 
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead
You may have assumed (rightly so) that a bobtailed bay is a type of horse. Indeed - "Bobtail" refers to the method of tying or cutting the horse’s pony tail so that it doesn't get caught in the harness. A sleigh being pulled through the snow made very little noise so bells would be attached to the harness to avoid collisions with other sleighs at blind intersections. Hence, "bells on bobtails ring". Hope that clears it up for you.
"Two forty as his speed" refers to a mile in 2 minutes 40 seconds while trotting. This is considered an excellent speed, therefore suggesting the horse is of good quality. In case you were wondering.
5. Silent Night
The Confusion: What's going on with the Virgin? Round young virgin? Proud young virgin?
This is a simple case of olden day language and modern day laziness. The confusion comes from this line:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
'Round yon virgin mother and child.
It means, my friends, that all is calm and all is bright AROUND YON (yonder….ok, yonder: at some distance in the direction indicated) virgin, mother and child (that’s Jesus!). Yes, old English is tricky.
6. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Yum! A steaming pile of figgy pudding!
The Confusion: Tell us about this supposedly delicious 'Figgy Pudding'
Arguably the most fun part to sing in this Christmas carol staple is the verse demanding “figgy pudding” at threat of a sit-in.
O Bring us some figgy pudding
O Bring us some figgy pudding
O Bring us some figgy pudding
And bring it right here
And we won’t go until we’ve got some
We won’t go until we’ve got some
We won’t go until we’ve got some
And bring it right here
Not a good lesson in manners.
Figgy pudding was an early version of the ever-present Christmas cake or Christmas pudding that was flavoured mainly with figs. It can be baked, steamed, boiled or fried and looks just as tasty as the stuff you can break your teeth on every year. Earliest references to figgy pudding date back to 16th century England. Mmmm figgy.
7. Walking in a Winter Wonderland
I'm legally qualified!
The Confusion: Who on earth is Parson Brown?
In the meadow we can build a snowman
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man,
But you can do the job while you're in town!'
The explanation for this is simple, really. The characters in the song have built a snowman, pretended it was a traveling clergyman and decided to spontaneously get hitched. Just your average snow day.
When “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” was written, back in 1934, it was common for Protestant ministers to travel from town to town to perform wedding ceremonies and other religious services in rural areas where they did not have a local minister or “parson”, as they were then called. Brown was inserted as a common last name. Thus, Parson Brown, the travelling clergyman made of snow – equipped to declare those crazy kids hitched.
8 & 9. The 12 Days of Christmas
9 and 10 are hosting this year's office party
The Confusion: Why would I want Turtle Doves? Calling Birds? Or a Partridge in a Pear Tree for that matter?
OK, so what gives here? Why would my true love give me all these birds I’d never heard of over a 12 day period?
The 12 Days of Christmas” has been suggested to be full of symbolism and meaning. I could go on for pages on the significance of all 12 gifts but I’m thinking at this point you've been awfully patient to stay with me this far into the article. Let’s keep it simple and start with the 12 days thing. For the uninitiated, Christmas was traditionally celebrated over a period of 12 days, beginning with Christmas day, Dec 25, and ending on January 7 or “Twelfth Night”, ergo, one gift per day.
So why would someone give me two turtle doves? Turtle doves, a species found in most parts of the world, have evolved to embody devoted love. They form strong pair bonds and have a mournful call that is considered romantic. Crucially, they are featured in the bible, a pair of them being sacrificed for the birth of Jesus. Two turtle doves it is.
二羽のヤマバト (Two Oriental Turtle Doves)
These two turtle doves are currently not speaking to each other
That true love of mine also gives me 4 Calling Birds or is it Colly Birds? The original version of the song, written in 1780, features 4 Colly Birds as the fourth. Colly being an archaic way to say black – referring to soot or grime like coal dust. The Colly Bird the song refers to is the common blackbird. Over time “colly birds” has morphed to “calling birds” because that just makes more sense to our modern-time brains.
So what is the significance of a partridge in a pear tree? No one knows.
10. Auld Lang Syne
Friends Forever!
The Confusion: Auld Lang Huh?
With lyrics taken from a poem written in old Scots by legendary Scottish poet Robbie Burns, it’s no wonder this New Year’s Eve favourite is one of the most gleefully misunderstood songs in the Carol books. It could be argued that part of the charm of Auld Lang Syne is the fact that it’s sang with such (often inebriated) gusto.  As people give themselves over to the general sentiment of the song, the words in particular are of little importance. However, for the curious let’s do a bit of translating.
So what/who/where is Auld Lang Syne? The Scots words translate into English literally as “old long since” or as you would say “long, long ago” or “once upon a time”. Alright, that part of the mystery solved, what are we really singing about? Well you might have gotten the feeling, being that the song is sang rather emotionally at the turn of the new year, at funerals and other important occasions, that the song is about honouring the good old days and remembering  every “auld acquaintance”. Sometimes the sentiment of a song speaks louder than it’s confusing misheard Scottish lyrics.
The main part of the song we sing today goes like this:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance
be forgot,
and old lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
The complete original lyrics and their translations/modifications can be found here: Auld Lang Syne
So raise your glass and impress your acquaintances, young and old, with your now-extensive knowledge of the obscure, archaic and wonderfully misunderstood Christmas Carols we sing today.


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