10 Archaic Christmas Carol Words Explained

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iStock

Many of us sing Christmas songs without giving a second thought to the lyrics. But for those who are paying attention, there are some pretty ancient terms mixed in with all of the Fa-La-La-La-La-ing. Here are the meanings of 10 of them, perfect for impressing your friends and family as you gather ’round the piano—assuming anyone actually does that.

1. “BELLS ON BOBTAIL,” FROM “JINGLE BELLS.”

This is sometimes misheard as “Bells on Bob’s tail” or “Bells on Bobtail,” as if Bob or Bobtail is the name of the horse. But 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.

2. “THERE WE GOT UPSOT,” ALSO FROM “JINGLE BELLS.”

This is in one of the often-ignored verses, but the full lyric goes, “The horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot, we ran into a drifted bank, and there we got upsot." According to Minnesota Public Radio, it means upset or overturned, as you can probably guess from the lyrics. Judging by its use in other poems and songs of the era, it can also mean upset in the emotional sense.

3. “TROLL THE ANCIENT YULETIDE CAROL,” FROM “DECK THE HALLS.”

Carolers
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In today’s lingo, this phrase gives us visions of mean people on the internet, ready to launch anonymous attacks on beloved Christmas songs. But in the 1800s, the word was often used with one of its now-little-known meanings: to sing loudly and clearly.

4. “PRAY YOU, DUTIFULLY PRIME YOUR MATIN CHIME, YE RINGERS; MAY YOU BEAUTIFULLY RIME YOUR EVETIME SONG, YE SINGERS,” FROM “DING DONG MERRILY ON HIGH.”

Matin refers to the morning prayers of the Anglican church. Although the definition of rime is actually a thin coating of ice, I suspect that it may just be an old, alternate spelling of rhyme.

5. “STILL THROUGH THE CLOVEN SKIES THEY COME,” FROM “IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR.”

If you’re like me, your first thought goes to “cloven hooves” and you wonder what that has to do with the birth of Jesus. The reason they’re called cloven hooves is because cloven means split or parted—the song is referring to the parting of the clouds in the skies for angels to come down and sing.

6. "THE HOLLY BEARS A BARK AS BITTER AS ANY GALL," FROM "THE HOLLY AND THE IVY."

Christmas holly
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Gall means rancor or bitterness of spirit, but it also means bile. I suppose bile doesn't often taste good.

7. “HOW ARE THY LEAVES SO VERDANT!” FROM “O CHRISTMAS TREE.”

Verdant simply means green.

8. “THEN PRETEND THAT HE IS PARSON BROWN” FROM “WINTER WONDERLAND.”

Parson can be a word for a member of the clergy, especially a Protestant pastor.

9. “THE CATTLE ARE LOWING, THE POOR BABY WAKES,” FROM “AWAY IN A MANGER.”

This is often misheard as “the cattle are lonely.” If you haven’t grown up in cattle country, you might not know this, but lowing is the deep, low sounds made by cattle. When a cow goes “moo,” it’s lowing.

10. “MORE RAPID THAN EAGLES HIS COURSERS THEY CAME” AND “SO UP TO THE HOUSE-TOP THE COURSERS THEY FLEW,” FROM “A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS.”

Santa and his reindeer flying
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Courser is another word for a fast horse, and the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (which has been much-disputed over the years) uses it to refer to reindeer as well.

A version of this piece originally ran in 2010.

Harry Potter Fans Can Have Dinner at Hogwarts This Christmas

big-ashb via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
big-ashb via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans who have ever dreamed of a Hogwarts Christmas now simply need to make their way to London to experience it. Through January 27, 2019, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London is hosting a festive "Hogwarts in the Snow" event, where visitors can recreate some of the Wizarding World's most memorable moments.

According to the Warner Bros. Studio website:

"The festive transformation will begin in the Great Hall, where the stage will again be decorated as it was for the iconic Yule Ball. As seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the celebration of the Triwizard Tournament saw every detail of the Great Hall covered in shimmering silver, dripping icicles and sparkling snow. You will get a taste of this incredible set dress as the top section of the Great Hall will be transformed with snow-covered Christmas trees, icicles, and an orchestra of magical instruments that have been painted by the Prop-Making Department to match the silver of the Yule Ball."

Though it may not be exactly like attending the Yule Ball that was thrown at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with Harry and the gang, the studio's epic holiday party will make it feel pretty close. An orchestra will play as attendees feast on a grand two-course dinner in the Great Hall and drink Butterbeer, and you'll gain exclusive entry to the Studio Tour.

After dinner, dessert and drinks will be served as guests travel through the sets from the Harry Potter film series, including the Gryffindor common room, Diagon Alley and Platform 9 ¾.

Though The Weird Sisters will not be in attendance, we can pretty much guarantee you'll have a better night than Harry, Hermione, and Ron did at the Yule Ball.

Thoughtful Human's Line of Plantable Greeting Cards Is Here for Life's Most Delicate Scenarios

Thoughtful Human
Thoughtful Human

Not sure how to make amends with that family member you had a fight with a couple years back? Perhaps you want to offer support to a friend going through a painful time—like with depression, cancer, or various kinds of grief—but don't know how. If you're having trouble finding the right words to say, Thoughtful Human wants to help. This unorthodox card company is challenging people to communicate in ways that show "radical compassion and empathy."

Thoughtful Human is essentially the Hallmark of strained relationships and awkward ice-breakers. The messages get straight to the point and say the words you might have trouble voicing aloud. "I was being really selfish and immature. I'm sorry," reads one. "Still mad, but life is short and tradition is tradition. Happy birthday," reads another.

But what truly makes these cards a literal alternative to extending an olive branch is that they're also plantable? All of the cards are made of seed paper, and they generally transform into wildflowers within 10-14 days of being planted. View it as a symbol of the restorative power of communication.

A variety of cards
Thoughtful Human

In a video posted to the company's website, Thoughtful Human's founder, Ali O'Grady, explains that the cards are designed for "dynamic relationships and challenging life circumstances." It's also a deeply personal project: She decided to start the company after losing her father to cancer.

There are cards dedicated to addiction and rehab, depression, grief, injury, long-distance relationships, and other delicate scenarios. Of course, you'll also find plenty of cards for happier times, including thank-you notes and congratulatory messages.

And if you haven't sent out your Christmas cards yet, consider this anti-holiday holiday card: "Shout out to that stranger's baby who locked in a lifetime of undeserved gifts, pie, and vacation time for everyone."

These cards and more can be found on Thoughtful Human's website, on Target.com, and at select Whole Foods stores in California's Bay Area.

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