by Jo Barnes –
As the holiday season approaches, signs of it are everywhere: Santa, shortbread and singing carols! And, I’m not referring to the melodies by Ms. Burnett or Channing. The word carol is actually based on an old French word – “carole” – meaning to sing and dance in a ring. During pagan times at Winter Solstice (around December 22) people danced around stone circles. When Christians took over the practice later, they gave people hymns to sing. St. Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays which prompted new carols, many of which we still enjoy today. So the pagan “carol” has now become the term for the festive songs we sing at the holiday season.
One such favourite is Deck the Halls! No, the song doesn’t involve construction or card dealing, but traces back to the 1500s to the Middle Dutch “dekken” which means to cover. A Scottish musician, Thomas Oliphant, wrote the song in 1862 and his idea was to adorn the walls using holly boughs at Christmastime to celebrate the season. So when we’ve finished today you can “deck” your home or office walls with garlands and greenery.
However, sometimes the meaning of words in carols has changed completely within the English language itself. For example, the much loved God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, has changed in both meaning and punctuation. Typically we sing with a pause after “ye,” and “merry,” an old word meaning peaceful or pleasant, simply describes the gentlemen. Originally though, there was a comma after merry. The word “rest” meant “to keep or continue to be,” so that it was suggesting God keep you, the singer or listener, peaceful.
A tradition of holiday festivities and one that shoppers look forward to is Boxing Day. While the phrase conjures up images of boxing gloves and ringside action, it actually doesn’t have anything to do with sports. During the Middle Ages church goers collected money, known as alms, which they put in little boxes and gave to the poor on the day after Christmas. Nowadays the boxes tend to be much bigger and are often more for ourselves.
And now apologies to those of you who hate puns, but “yule” never guess the origin of this next word. Yule or yuletide traces back to the time before Christianity when early ancestors celebrated Winter Solstice. They called it Yule, from the Old Norse word jól, a pagan winter feast lasting 12 days. The Old English “tid” meant point of time where we get our word “tide” meaning ebb and flow.
Hopefully these seasonal word treats have sweetened your year. Happy holidays to all of you!