“Don we now our gay apparel / Troll the ancient Yuletide carol”? I just realized I have no idea what I’m singing. And what exactly is gay apparel?
In this case “gay apparel” probably just means cheery and colorful. Though if there isn’t already an online Xmas LGBT clothier called “Gay Apparel,” then I smell a niche market being missed.* But you’re right, this is an odd little song. We have plenty of Christmas tunes with lyrics as old or older, but somehow, next to nothing in this ditty seems to mean quite the same thing anymore. Let’s go through it, hmm?
I’ll follow the style of the questioner up there and skip the fa-la-la’s, which I’m sure everyone will be filling in mentally anyway. I sure am.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly
“Deck” here means “put stuff on,” not “punch so hard they fall down.” This old sense of covering something is also why we have decks on ships. “Bough” is an old word for branch, today usually reserved for jokes by eight-year-olds – how can you tell which tree is the dogwood?
Wait, no, even then “by its bark” is a better answer. Drat.
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Don we now our gay apparel
“Don” is a contraction too, of “do on.” Get ready to have your mind blown when you think about what it means to “doff” your cap. Yeah, we used to be just mad about contractions.
“Gay” was probably only in this song for about twenty years before people started smirking about it – the first written version of Deck the Halls is from 1877, and “gay” started being consistently connected to homosexuality at the turn of the century.
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
Again with “troll” we’ve got a word that just doesn’t get used in the same way anymore. It started out as a verb for wandering around, then became specifically rolling around, and then that got metaphor’d into singing in a round, which is the idea here. You know, when one person starts with “row row row your boat” and then when they get to “gently” the next person starts in on “row”? That’s what the speaker is suggesting here. Except Christmassy.
See the blazing Yule before us
Here “Yule” isn’t the actual season or holiday – it’s one of the traditions of the season, the Yule log. Which was, um, a big log. That people burned in winter, because hey, cold. Look, some traditions are practical.
Strike the harp and join the chorus
Follow me in merry measure
Dude just wants some friends to join in. That’s “measure” in the musical sense, the number of beats in a chunk of time.
While I sing of Yuletide treasure
Honestly not sure which treasure exactly is being referred to here. Could be the joy and kinship of the season, but here’s the thing: this is not the first version of this song. There’s one from about ten years earlier that’s semi-Christmas-oriented, but with way more specifics about what everyone’s drinking, and in that version the words are “beauty’s treasure.” And there’s an even older version that’s completely different – it opens with “O! how soft my fair one’s bosom!” (Fa la la…)
So I can’t rule this out as a declaration of the greatness of Christmas poon, is what I’m saying.
Fast away the old year passes
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses
“Ye” was basically the Middle English equivalent of “y’all.” To switch carols for a minute, when the angels are singing “come, all ye faithful,” they’re saying “all y’all faithful.” This is the real “ye” – “ye” for “the” was not actually a thing, as you may recall.
Sing we joyous all together
Heedless of the wind and weather
“Heed,” as in “to take heed,” is to pay attention to something. It comes from a much, much, much older root that meant “to shelter.” That same root was used in another sense that, over thousands of years, developed into a completely different word – “hat.” Etymology! It’s weird.
And with that, I doff my hat, and wish you all the merriest of Christmases.
The Language Nerd
*Ahhh, instead of a “Buy It Now” it could say “Don It Now”! Oh man, I have to go register a domain name. And like, learn about fashion.
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Man, now that song is so stuck in my head. If only there were something I could do about that….