We happily hoist our egg nog in the air, embrace each other, and raise our out-of-tune voices in song. And we have no idea what in Santa’s name we’re singing.
Each holiday season, the masses carol about “figgy pudding” and “gay apparel” and someone named Parson Brown, mostly ignorant to the meaning of these antiquated phrases and references to things long past. In the spirit of finding the true meaning of Christmas, we thought it best to find the true meaning of these befuddling Christmas song lyrics. Here, a glossary to the most confusing.
‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’
‘Oh, bring us a figgy pudding’
Whether carolers would truly like for someone to bring them some figgy pudding, as they demand in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” depends on their fondness for another classic holiday dessert. It’s “a little bit like fruitcake,” baking expert Dorie Greenspan told NPR’s Michele Norris on All Things Considered. “I was afraid to say it because fruitcake has such a bad reputation, but [figgy pudding] is steamed; it’s chockablock with dried fruits; it’s so boozy…it’s delicious.” It was popularized as a holiday dessert in 16th-century England and also is known as Christmas pudding or plum pudding. Over the years, its popularity has waned significantly.
‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’
‘I don’t know if there’ll be snow but have a cup of cheer’
There’s a cute play on words going on here. It’s Christmas, bucko, so look happy! But as some of us know all too well, “cup of cheer” refers more specifically to a brimming cup of holiday happy juice. Booze. Whether it’s spiked egg nog, mulled cider, or some other libation, the narrator here is inviting listeners to raise a glass, drink, and be merry.
‘It’ll nearly be like a picture print
by Currier and Ives’
Currier and Ives was a printmaking firm based out of New York City from 1834 to 1907. Founded by Nathaniel Currier, who later partnered with James Merritt Ives, the firm described itself as “publishers of cheap and popular prints,” most of which were lithographs depicting the spectrum of American life. Extremely popular were the winter landscapes, which featured utopian winter scenes of couples riding horse-drawn carriages through the snow or families ice skating on picturesque ponds. In “Sleigh Ride,” the narrator is painting a scene so perfect that it could be featured on an iconic Currier and Ives print.
‘In the meadow we can build a snowman then pretend that he is Parson Brown’
One line in “Winter Wonderland” has stopped countless people dead in their tracks. Who is Parson Brown, and why are these people making a snowman that looks like him? Given that in 1934, when the song was written, the most famous Parson Brown was a Florida orange grower, lyricist Richard B. Smith was likely referring to a fictional pastor. During that period, Protestant ministers were called “parsons” and would travel from town to town to performing weddings for couples who didn’t have a local minister of their faith where they lived. So those lyrics are actually a bit flirtatious. The narrator is suggesting that they build a snowman that looks like a minister. The next lines, “He’ll say ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say ‘No, man, but you can do the job while you’re in town!’” could be considered a mock proposal.
‘Deck the Halls’
‘Don we now our gay apparel
fa la la, la la la, la la la’
“Deck the Halls” was written back in the 16th century, when the English language was very different. Modern translation: “Put on your party clothes!”
‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’
‘Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your troubles will be miles away, oh’
As we just reviewed, “gay” means happy—Judy Garland was not singing about a Yuletide with homosexual leanings. “Yuletide,” etymologically, roots in the Old English word “ġéol,” which has since been translated to “Yule,” referring to the 12-day religious festival celebrated by Northern Europeans hundreds of years ago. Over the years, the meaning has evolved, essentially, to “Christmastime,” and describes the period between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6. Judy, as depressing as she sounds in this song, just wants your holiday season to be happy.
‘It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas’
‘A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben’
A pair of hopalong boots” kicks off the list of Christmas presents for pairs of children that are rattled off in “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The boots in question have no particular spring or bounce—the song refers to popular costume boots from the ’40s and ’50s modeled after the ones worn by the cowboy Hopalong Cassidy in a series of books and films. Originally conceived by author Clarence E. Mulford in 1904, Hopalong was crude, rough-talking, and dangerous. For the 66 (!) films starring William Boyd that came out in the ’30s and ’40s before re-running on TV and finding an even wider audience in the ’50s, Hopalong was rebranded a clean-cut, valiant hero—and his boots were the prize of little boys everywhere.
‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’
‘Rooty toot toot and rummy tum tum
Santa Claus is coming to town’
Amazingly, there are theories floating around that “rooty toot toot” refers a root beer-flavored candy whistle, and “rummy tum tum” refers to rum balls meant to soothe upset stomachs, with the idea that “Santa Claus is coming to town” and he’s bringing with him candies to help you feel better after too much partying on Christmas Eve. The real answer, however, is much simpler. The line right before this is “With little tin horns and little toy drums.” The “rooty toot toot” is simply the noise the horns make, while “rummy tum tum” is the drums.
‘Auld Lang Syne’
‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne’
Impress all your friends on New Year’s Eve, everyone. “Auld lang syne” is Scottish-Gaelic for “old long since,” or, more idiomatically, “days gone by” or “time long past.”