Though there are many “secular” songs for the holiday season such as the very popular “White Christmas” (written, oddly enough, by the Jewish Irving Berlin), there are also numbers of older songs which, even though one may not have the slightest interest in Christian dogma, are traditional and very often heard.
My point in mentioning this is linguistic. I have noticed that many people, even those who have heard or sung these songs all their lives, are not quite sure what some of the words mean.
It is not a matter of mishearing, such as thinking that “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is actually “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night.” It is a matter of not knowing what certain old terms mean, because the words are no longer used in everyday speech.
So as a preface to the holiday season, here is a discussion of such often puzzling words in some old Christmas carols.
Let’s being with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” This is not, as some kids think, a song about an angel named Harold. “Hark!” is an exclamation meaning “Listen!,” “Turn your attention to the sound!” In old literature we often find the related “hearken,” as in “Hearken to my words,” meaning “Listen attentively to my words.”
So the lyrics are saying “Listen! The herald angels sing…” A herald is someone who proclaims a message, often a message sent by royalty or some other state authority. So “herald angels” are official messengers sent to bring and proclaim a message.
Later in the song come the words “With th’ angelic host proclaim…” “Th'” is of course just an abbreviation of “the.” But what is a “host” here? It does not mean a host who entertains or takes care of a guest or party, as used today; instead it comes from the old meaning, “a multitude of soldiers,” “an army,” though in this particular case “heavenly host” is generally just understood to mean “a multitude of angels,” a “great crowd of angels,” with no emphasis on “army.”
The carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” sounds at first as though it is addressing angels, but it means simply “We have heard angels high above.” And when it speaks of mountains “echoing their joyous strains.” “Strains” is the problem word here. Today “strain” commonly means either to filter something or to damage a muscle; but in this carol it is a plural noun meaning the phrases of music sung by the angels; today we would just say that the mountains “echo back their joyous song.”
And of course many people have no idea what the carol means when it goes off into its long Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a in Excelsis Deo. That is because it is Latin, derived ultimately from the very old Vulgate translation of the Bible. It has nothing to do with a girl named Gloria, but means instead “Glory (Gloria) to God (Deo) in the height” (in excelsis) or as the King James Bible gives it, “Glory be to God on high.”
People happily sing the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” but they almost never understand what it means. It does not mean “God give you rest, merry gentlemen”; instead, it uses the word “rest” to mean “keep in a certain condition.” So “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” means “May God keep you merry, gentlemen.” “Merry” is a very old, bu now seldom-used word in English (I always think of the old line from the Liber Eliensis (c. 1175), Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely ða Cnut ching reu ðer by — “Merry sang the monks at Ely as Canute the King rowed there by”). And when it finishes up with “O tidings of comfort and joy,” “tidings” means “news.”
And then there is the popular “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” “Deck” here means “to ornament, to adorn.” So it is referring to putting up branches of the holly tree in rooms to ornament them. And then comes the now-notorious “Don we now our gay apparel,” which originally meant simply to put on bright and colorful or festive and cheerful clothing. It continues with “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” “troll” meaning here to “sing with a full and merry voice” the very old carol of the Yule time, Yule having become the “Christmas” season.
“See the blazing Yule before us.” means “Look at the burning Yule log (in the fireplace) in front of us.” The burning of the Yule log in the fireplace at Christmastime was an old English tradition. “Strike the harp” means “Pluck (play) the strings of the harp.”
A word often heard in regard to the Christmas season and in some Christmas carols is “Noel.” It is borrowed from Middle French (and Anglo-Norman), and signifies “Christmas.”