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15# Deck the Halls

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Here’s the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas Carols!
What if “The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, Frosty and the “One Horse Open Sleigh” had nothing to do with Christmas?
Singing Christmas songs goes hand in hand with baking Christmas treats, listening our favorite Christmas tales, watching our favorite Christmas movies, and not only.
Like everything around this period of the year, everything has a story.
From songs that have been saved from being erased forever to not really knowing for sure where a song came from, here is the history of a few Christmas Carols you know and sing still today!

Enjoy our Advent Calendar 2022!




One popular 16th-century song was the carol we know today as Deck the Halls and, at the time, it was a favourite Welsh song, originally titled Nos Galan.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that it acquired Christmassy words and became part of our own festivities. Its melody comes from the Welsh winter song called “Nos Galan,” which is actually about New Year’s Eve.

Probably you didn’t know that, in its earliest form, Deck the Halls was just a folk song…but one with some rather naughty words.
Translated directly, the Welsh text reads something like this:

Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la
Oh! how blessed are the blisses, Words of love, and mutual kisses, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la

However, these words would not have suited the prim Victorians, so when Thomas Oliphant came to write an English text for the melody in the 1860s he started from scratch, co-opting the dancing melody and lively ‘fa la la’ chorus for an altogether more innocent celebration of Christmas preparations.
They first appeared in 1862, in volume 2 of Welsh Melodies, a set of four volumes authored by composer and harpist John Thomas.

The original English lyrics, as published in 1862, run as follows:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
‘Tis the season to be jolly:
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Troul the ancient Christmas carol.
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

See the flowing bowl before us,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Strike the harp, and join in chorus:
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Follow me in merry measure,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
While I sing of beauty’s treasure.
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses:
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Laughing quaffing all together,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Heedless of the wind and weather.
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Thomas Oliphant was a Scottish songwriter and author who was responsible for many popular songs and writings. He made his way by writing new lyrics to old melodies, interpreting foreign songs into English, and not necessarily directly translating, but, as in “Deck the Halls,” coming up with lyrics that fit the mood of the song. He became a lyricist for the court of Queen Victoria and eventually became a popular translator of music.
Where the old Welsh lyrics for “Nos Galan” sang of the impending new year, his folk composition in English lauded the onset of the Christmas holiday, calling for the decoration and merriment which typically accompanies the celebration, including a line about drinking that was later revised. Oliphant was interested in capturing the spirit of the song, including the “fa la la” refrain. This part of the song, which has become its signature feature in modern iterations, was probably an addition from the middle ages when there was a tendency of Madrigal choruses to fill songs with a kind of vocal break between verses.
Madrigals were a traditional secular musical form during the Rennaissance in Europe and were typically sung without instrumental accompaniment. They usually featured poetry set to music, with a composer adding “accompaniment” sections for some voices, such as our “fa la la”.
Not by chance, Thomas Oliphant was Honorary Secretary of the Madrigal Society, where he mostly reinterpreted Italian madrigal songs into English. Most of his translations were in a similar style to “Deck the Halls,” with entirely new lyrics set to familiar melodies.

But the modern version of “Deck the Halls,” which is sung by choirs and carolers is the one published in an 1866 songbook titled simply The Song Book (although in that publication it’s titled “Deck the Hall”).
The pluralization of “halls” is probably something that just took shape as more and more people took to singing it.
But, by then, the song had already been appropriated by folk musicians and others, including Mozart, who used it as a piano-violin duet.






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