Christmas carol lyrics have unique history

We have a love/hate relationship with Christmas carols. By the time Thanksgiving has rolled past, the limp versions favored by malls and their ilk have sucked the life out of even the best of them.

But of course in the right hands, these evergreens can be full of energy and good cheer. Only grinches could hate on a candlelit chorus of “Silent Night” or a choir, brass and organ rendering of “Adeste Fideles.”

Several big caroling concerts are coming to town. Non-singers may enjoy the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Festival of Carols, while those who like to belt out a tune or 10 will find the Holiday Sing-Along at Disney Hall just the ticket. For a bit of both, mark the Pacific Symphony-sponsored Holiday Organ Spectacular on your calendar.

We’ve compiled a lexicon of words that feature prominently in the Christmas canon.



Best heard in the English traditional “Here We Come A-wassailing.” Essentially an excuse for a booze-up, wassailing is a type of Christmas trick-or-treating/extortion. Peasants would turn up on the doorstep of the feudal lord who owned their land and start singing. In exchange, the lord would give out drink and food. The idea was that because they were wishing the lord well (“Love and joy come to you / And to you your wassail too”), it wasn’t begging.

A slightly more sinister wassailing carol is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with its verse “We won’t go until we get some / We won’t go until we get some / We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.” In Middle Ages England, it was not uncommon for groups of teen-age boys to go around to the wealthy houses in their neighborhood and demand food and drink. Neighbors who weren’t immediately forthcoming risked having their house vandalized.


Bells take on different meanings in different carols. “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Silver Bells” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” all refer to church bells. In the days before watches and noise ordinances, church bells were rung for at least half an hour at the beginning and end of services, weddings and other celebratory occasions.

“Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” evoke a more cheeky sort of bell-ringing. If one-horse, open sleighs were the Mustangs of the 19th century, then a tricked-up horse’s harness was the after-market rims and trunk full of speakers. A young man pulling up to church or the village hall in his sleigh with bells polished and jingling would catch the eye of all eligible young ladies — very much the point of the endeavor.


Think of “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol / Fa la la la la, la la la la.” Brought to England by the Norse, Yule is a pagan festival observed from late December to early January. When the Yule holiday was merged with Christmas celebrations in the 11th century, the festival became the Twelve Days of Christmas. The tradition may have passed on, but the song keeps it — and five golden rings — in our lexicon.

Even 1,000 years ago, people weren’t above one-upmanship, and competition for the largest Yule log meant that eventually trees much too big for the already enormous open-hearth fireplaces were laid on the floor and fed into the fire (“see the blazing yule before us”), until, days later it was finally consumed. Eventually, houses got too small to have open-hearth fires, so burning a Yule log gave way to consuming the log in cake form. We call that a win.

Holly and ivy

Although they are often sung of together (“Sans Day Carol,” “Holly & the Ivy”), ivy is more of a hanger-on — the Khloe and Kourtney to holly’s Kim Kardashian. Holly and ivy have been used for more than 700 years as Christmas decorations by the church and before that were central to pagan winter solstice celebrations.

The primacy earned by this pair is likely a matter of convenience: Holly and ivy grow naturally all over western Europe through the winter, so were easily available and therefore priced right for the hovel segment of the decorating market.

In those days of nearly universal illiteracy, the church routinely transformed everyday objects into representations of Christ. In this case, holly’s white berry was a reminder of the silk in which the infant Jesus was wrapped. Later in the season, the red berry was Christ’s blood and the prickliness of the leaves his crown of thorns at the crucifixion.