Cracking The Christmas Carol Code

here we come a-caroling

“Here we go a-wassailing among the leaves so green!” If you’ve ever heard a caroler sing this phrase and thought, “What the heck is a wassail?”—you’re not alone!

Some of our favorite Christmas carols date back several hundred years, and in that time, language has changed a lot! Many carols themselves have undergone multiple revisions, further confusing things. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” started as “Hark How All the Welkin Rings,” while “Deck the Halls” was adapted from a naughty 1800s folk tune. Times and traditions change, and it’s easy to see why we’d need help decoding these songs so rich in history.

WATCH: Can You Guess What These Christmas Carol Words Mean?

Let’s look at some of the most puzzling words in our favorite carols. You’ll be fluent in the jolliest holiday-speak in no time! And you’ll be ready for your figgy pudding.


From the carol, “Here We Come A-wassailing,” a wassail is “a toast made to wish good health.” And so, in this carol, they seem to be toasting good health quite a lot. More specifically though, this is an Old English toast, adopted from the Old Norse ves heill meaning “be healthy!”


“Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen.” Good King WHO? Wenceslaus (or Wenceslas) the First was a duke of what is now the Czech Republic. Sainted and dubbed “king” shortly after his death in 935, he was known for his piety and generosity to the poor. The carol “Good King Wenceslaus” is traditionally sung on Saint Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), which honors one of the earliest Catholic saints. The carol depicts a cold Saint Stephen’s night in which Wenceslaus journeys into the snow to help an old man.


If you’ve always wondered how to respond when someone brings you “tidings of comfort and joy” (from the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), your confusion ends here.

Derived from the Old English tidan, meaning “to happen,” a tiding is “a new piece of information or an announcement of an event.” You can think of it as news rolling in on the tide. So, whether your carolers come in on a surfboard or a sleigh, the correct response to tidings is “thank you.”

figgy pudding

Have carolers ever camped out on your porch demanding figgy pudding, making threats like “we won’t go until we get some!” Don’t be alarmed. You’re not caught in a protest; it’s just another old Christmas carol: “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

A distant cousin of the fruitcake, figgy pudding is “a traditional fig-based cake common in England in the 1600s.” The carol re-popularized the dessert in the 1900s, and now countless carolers ask for it every year. (However, there is little known about anyone actually receiving any.)


Holly is actually a tree with glossy green leaves, whitish flowers, and red berries. From American Holly to English Holly, the boughs or “branches” of this tree are a traditional Christmas decoration.

The word itself is a shortening of the Old English holegn, another name for the same evergreen plant, which has represented rebirth on the European continent for centuries. And now, the decoration and evergreen plant will live on through the lyrics of “Deck the Halls” forever.

There’s another one from this carol that we’ve always been curious about as well. See the next slide.


“Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la la la la la!” Yeah, that didn’t make sense to us, either. Ais the case with tidings, the yuletide signifies the coming of the holiday season. Yule comes from the Old Norse word jol, relating to the pre-Christian winter feast. After the advent of Christianity, the term was adopted into Old English as geol to represent the Christmas season.

And, what about troll? Well, this type of troll is referring to the way a person walks, so in this case, this song is talking about strolling around singing a Christmas song.

(Want to know more about the lyrics from “Deck the Halls”? Check out what ’tis the season means here!)


The traditional Christmas carol, “Away in the Manger” starts off pretty straightforward: “Away in a manger no crib for a bed, The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.”

But, as the song continues, there are some words that leave us scratching our heads. Case in point, this line: “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes.” What exactly does lowing mean here? Lowering their heads? Feeling “low”? Well, actually, this term simply means the same as mooing.

hopalong boots

The classic tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” sums up the excitement most people feel about the holiday season. As you sing along, you can perfectly picture everything described in the song. A tree in the Grand Hotel? One in the park? We can see it now. But, what about this line?

“A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots / Is the wish of Barney and Ben.”

What are hopalong boots? Hopalong Cassidy was a fictional cowboy hero featured in books, comic strips, and 66 movies in the ’40s and ’50s. Kids obviously wished for his boots at Christmas back then … but now? Definitely harder to picture.


Sure, we all know the song, “The First Noel.” And, chances are most of us sing along to it every time it’s played. But, does anyone know what a noel is?

“The First Noel, the Angels did say / Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep / On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”

Does that help at all? Yeah, we didn’t think so. Well, guess what? Noel is actually a very simple word meaning “the Christmas season” or simply “a Christmas carol.” 


“Jingle Bells” is one of those happy-go-lucky holiday tunes that everyone knows and loves. And, who wouldn’t with these fun lyrics?

“Dashing through the snow / On a one horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go / Laughing all the way.”

Nothing about these lyrics has us questioning what we’re singing. We totally get it’s about a sleigh ride in the snow, and we are laughing our butts off in the process. But, what about the next line: “Bells on bobtails ring”?

What now? Bobtail is defined as “an animal that has had its tail cropped.” So, it seems the song is referring to a “horse with bells on its harness.”

Parson Brown

Nothing defines Christmas quite like a fresh blanket of snow. And the song, “Winter Wonderland” could prepare us for the blizzard of the century with its happy lyrics. Even those who aren’t snow lovers can appreciate how catchy this song is. However, there is a section that tends to trip up a lot of listeners:

“In the meadow we can build a snowman / Then pretend that he is Parson Brown”

Who is Parson Brown, and why would anyone want to name a snowman after him? Well, it seems that there is no one famous by that name, but a parson is actually a minister that can perform marriage ceremonies.

Once bitten, twice shy

Although not as happy-go-lucky as other holiday songs, “Last Christmas” is a favorite. Who doesn’t like a sad, down-in-the-dumps love song now and then?

“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart / But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears / I’ll give it to someone special.”

That’s right: try, try again! But, many want to know what Wham! is talking about with the lyric “once bitten, twice shy.” Well, it’s an idiom that refers to getting hurt by someone and not wanting it to happen again. Better to be shy the second time around, for sure.


Who doesn’t love the Grinch during the holidays? He’s cranky, hairy, and green, but grows a heart so big it’s impossible to hate him. And the song, “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is a fun one to sing no matter how old you are:

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch / You really are a heel.”

But we have to ask, what is a heel exactly? This song can’t be talking about the part of a foot, right? Nope, this is an old phrase used to describe a “bad or selfish man.” And, we won’t even go into other lyrics from this song like, “You’re a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce.” Yummy.

(However, you can see us try to figure them out in our investigation of the magical language of Dr. Seuss.)

Gloria Hosanna in excelsis

If you’re staring at these few words completely mystified, you aren’t the only one. “Gloria Hosanna in excelsis” is from the traditional Christmas song, “Ding Dong Merrily On High,” and is pretty darn confusing:

“Ding dong merrily on high / In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky / Is riv’n with angel singing
Gloria Hosanna in excelsis! / Gloria Hosanna in excelsis!”

Actually, there are plenty of words that look a little strange, including riv’n. Well, after some research riv’n seems to mean “to split,” while the expression, Gloria Hosanna in excelsis, means “Glory! Hosanna in the highest,” with hosanna being “an expression of praise.”

round yon virgin

“Silent Night” is a favorite to sing, and it’s easy to see why. The lyrics have a certain peacefulness that only this season can bring:

“Silent Night / Holy Night
All is calm / All is bright.”

But, then we slip into a few confusing words like, round yon virgin. Hmm. Well, let’s break it down. The word round seems to mean “to go around,” and the word yon is short for yonder. So this phrase basically translates to, “All is calm and bright around the virgin mother over there and her child.”

Christmas carols officially cracked!

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