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.”

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Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”


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Anyone familiar with English literature and with history will know the term “Tyrian purple.”  This purple color was once the prerogative of royalty, thus the expression “to the purple born,” which we can trace back to the Byzantine Greek expression porphyrogennetos.

We find a variant of that word — Porphyrogene — in Edgar Alan Poe’s rather creepy poem The Haunted Palace:

Wanderers in that happy valley,
   Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
   To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
   The ruler of the realm was seen.

Emily Dickinson, who was fond of the color purple, mentions

An altered look about the hills —
A Tyrian light the village fills —

Reference to ancient royal purple — Tyrian purple — pops up in innumerable books and contexts.  Tyrian purple has been a part of our history since ancient times.  In fact our English word “purple” itself comes originally from the Greek porphyra, the name for the pigment we call Tyrian purple (as well as the mussel from which it was made).

All of this is just a preface to telling you that yesterday I was saddened to read in The Guardian that the shellfish used in ancient times to make the dye Tyrian purple (so called from the ancient city of Tyre) has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean due to the rise of sea temperature caused by climate change.  It is just one worrisome sign among a multitude of troubling evidence that the world has entered precarious and dangerous times environmentally and climatically.

Here is the link to the article:





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Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.


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Winter begins;
In the withered fields
No bird sings.


A friend in the Netherlands sent this photo taken by his wife on her walk through the Holterberg region.  She kindly gave her permission for me to use it.  It really expresses the feeling of this time of year.  I liked it so much that I am using part of it as the page header for now.



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As one who has taught and advocated hokku and other Nature-based verse for decades, I feel that in view of the recent U.S. presidential election, we should all pay very close attention to this warning from the Wilderness Society:

“Donald Trump’s victory ushers in a new era of serious threats to American conservation. When the president-elect has previously weighed in on the issues that matter to us, his words have often run contrary to core American values about protecting our land and water. Pledges to deregulate and drill our way to prosperity without regard for the science and consequences of climate change ought to alarm every person who cares about our country (and planet).”*

On the  day Trump was elected, the World Meteorological Organization reported that 2011 to 2015 were the hottest years on record.  And the New York Times has reported that 2016 is likely to go on record as even hotter.

In The Guardian, an article by Oliver Milman had this to say:

A Trump presidency might be game over for the climate,” said Michael Mann, a prominent climate researcher. “It might make it impossible to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels.”

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, added: “This is an unmitigated disaster for the planet.”*

Of course the changing climate and the increasingly-damaged environment are only two of the many very serious concerns a Trump presidency brings to our country and our planet — but our climate, our air, our water and our earth are of paramount importance.  We should all be looking into ways we can work to minimize the potential damage to our planet and our lives during the coming four years under a Trump administration.




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Well, tonight being HALLOWEEN — Samhain — the ancient beginning of winter, I have my pumpkin carved, lit, and ready to ward off any evil spirits or wicked witches that may be abroad tonight:


Somehow its face reminds me of Calcifer, the fire demon in Diana Wynne Jones’ wonderful fantasy story, Howl’s Moving Castle.  If you have not yet gotten to know Calcifer, Howl, and the enduring Sophie, you have missed out on a great deal of fun.  Perhaps you know it as the Hayao Miyazaki animated film.  The film is very good, but the story is not quite the same, nor with the captivating detail one finds in the book — though both are pleasing in their own ways.

Now we enter the season when the Yin energies become dominant, the season of cold and of long, dark nights — the season when we become very aware of the importance of things we ordinarily do not notice, such as a warm blanket or a hot cup of fragrant tea.





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