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Time to “Deck the Halls”

Sprig of holly

With December almost upon us, it’s time to think about decorating for the festive season — a custom with long roots in our cultural history.

Among the songs of the season, Deck the Halls seems to be about decorating dwellings and shops for Christmas, but, like many customs, the song and its meaning has changed over time.
The melody for Deck the Halls comes from a 16th century Welsh tune called Nos Galan, which means New Year’s Eve. The original words, as recorded in Campbel’s Treatise on the Language, Poetry, and Music of the Highland Clans [1862], are

Goreu pleser ar nos galan, The best pleasure on New Year’s Eve,

Tŷ thǎn a theulu did dan, Is house and fire & a pleasant family.

Calon lǎn a chwrw melon, A pure heart & brown ale

Pennill mwyn a llais y delyn A gentle song & the voice of the harp

Thomas Oliphant came up with official English words in the second volume of his Welsh Melodies, also published in 1862. Oliphant shifted the song to a Christmas aire, and may have added the fa-la-las. But, the song was still different from what we sing today.

Beer Barrel

Deck the halls 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 mead cup, drain the barrel

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

Troll the ancient yuletide carol

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

Medieval Troubadours

Oh! How soft my fair one’s bosom,

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

Oh! How sweet the grove in blossom,

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

Oh! How blessed are the blisses,

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

Words of love, and mutual kisses,

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la 

Wait! What? Those don’t sound like Victorian Approved lyrics

Oops. Try these, complete with linguistic definitions.

Victorian decorating

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,

[Deck, from the Middle Dutch dekken, meaning cover, as in cover the halls in 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

Don we now our gay apparel

[Don, from 14th century contraction of do on, meaning put on]

[Gay, from 12th century, meaning to be filled with joy & mirth, i.e. party clothes]

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

Troll the ancient yule tide carol

[Yule for the 12 days of Christmas; Tide from tid, a portion of time]

Plucking the harp

Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

See the blazing yule before us
Fa la la la la, la la, la, la
Strike the harp & join the chorus


Fa la la la la, la la, la, la
Follow me in merry measure
Fa la la la la, la la, la, la
While I tell of yuletide 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
Sing we joyous all together
Fa la la la la, la la, la, la
Heedless of the wind & weather
Fa la la la la, la la, la, la

“Deck Us All With Boston Charlie”

In more recent times, Walt Kelly, who created the comic strip Pogo, offered a nonsensical, joyful song set to the tune of Deck the Halls. I suggest it’s a song better sung after indulging in mead.

Trolley interior

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don’t we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker ‘n’ too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, ‘lope with you!

Living 'toy soldier' 1903

Hunky Dory’s pop is lolly,
Gaggin’ on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie’s collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an’ polly voo!
Chilly Filly’s name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly’s jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

🌲 🌲 🌲

Illustrations

Holly Ornament. Hayes Lithographic Co. 1900.

Beer barrel from St Erik’s Brewery, Stockholm, Sweden by Adville.

Berlin Troubadours.

“Putting Up Christmas.” 1860.

Oona Autumn Harp.

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Münster, Stadthaus 3, Straßenbahn — 2018 — 0975-7” / CC BY-SA 4.0

William Norris as ‘toy soldier.’ 1903.

Cecil Adams. “What are the lyrics to Walt Kelly’s classic carol, Deck Us All With Boston Charlie?” Straight Dope. Mar. 20, 1981.

Kim Ruel. “Deck the Halls Song History.” Liveaboutdotcom. Apr. 21, 2019.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra’s latest book, Saxon Heroines: A Northumbrian Novel, is available in eBook and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Google Play and Kobo. Her previous books Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama’s Labyrinth: A Biographical Novel are available in print and eBook editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Google Play and Kobo, and in audiobook editions at Amazon, Nook, Audible, Apple Books, and Kobo. Two Coins is narrated by Deepti Gupta and Noah Michael Levine. Rama’s Labyrinth is narrated by Deepti Gupta.


Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.



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