Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 9, 2007

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol: A Glossary

Holiday songs on the streets in Sonoma

Image via Wikipedia

After singing “Troll the ancient yuletide carol” at school yesterday, I pictured a small group of trolls going door-to-door, angrily singing holiday songs in their scratchy troll voices, smiling through their disgusting troll teeth, making a bid to undermine their cute cousins the elves in a historic reversal of the grand Christmas myth-making experience.

I thought it was a typo –that it was supposed to be “toll”, like the tolling of a bell– and that’s what I told the students. Then I looked it up at home and my book of Christmas songs said “troll” also. WTF? So I checked Webster’s, and sure enough, there it was: v.t. troll – to sing in a loud, carefree way. I was wrong. It happens.

I suppose I had not noticed the word before because we’re so used to turning off our brains when we sing Christmas carols. With these old songs, we don’t always know what we’re singing. We just sing it. We enjoy the company of other voices at least once a year, not worrying a bit about how troll-like our own voice sounds. We also use archaic or otherwise difficult language that, during the other eleven months of the year, we have no use for.

Which leads me to part two of today’s post: a minor, incomplete, informal glossary of terms that we seldom use anymore, from a carol that we sing all the time.

Deck the Halls is full of them, since it’s from the Old Welsh:

First, the title phrase – “deck the halls with boughs of holly” – with deck being a synonym for decorate (not a WWE wrestling move), and boughs being an archaic term for branches (see also the old lullabye Rock a Bye Baby, where it’s “When the bough breaks…”).

Don we now our gay apparel” – here don refers to the act of putting on clothes(whether or not your name is Don… in fact many Dons prefer no clothing at all), and gay is a synonym for colorful and carefree… which may explain somewhat the modern adoption of the term by homosexuals. The word slowly acquired a second, sexual connotation beginning in the 1700s (sexually carefree & loose), and in the 1920s writers like Gertrude Stein and Noel Coward started slyly using it to refer to sexual orientation.

And here’s a fun, “gay” fact about one of my fave films ever, lifted direct from wiki:

  •  Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the first film to use the word gay in apparent reference to homosexuality. In a scene where Cary Grant‘s clothes have been sent to the cleaners, he must wear a lady’s feathery robe. When another character inquires about his clothes, he responds “Because I just went gay…all of a sudden!”[4] …There is much debate about what Grant meant with the ad-lib (the line was not in the script).

Troll the ancient yuletide carol” – for troll, see above… followed by yuletide, with yule- referring to a pre-Christian (aka pagan) winter festival, and –tide referring (I think… since I’m having little luck finding an online definition and I’m too lazy to go find a real reference book) to the wave-like ebb and flow of seasons.

Verse 2 begins “See the blazing yule before us”, which refers to the Christmas tradition of burning a yule log (not to a pyromaniac’s fantasy of setting the whole festival on fire). Yule logs have some vague connection to the Norse god Thor, but we won’t go there.

I may look at goofy words from some other carols later in the week. But right now, this has taken too long, and there is a small child in the next room, patiently waiting to make troll-shaped sugar cookies with me.

“Oh what fun, it is to bake, an ugly troll today… HEY!”


  1. I think ‘tide’ in the relevant sense means essentially ‘time,’ and the sea ‘tide’ derives its meaning from this.

    See the Middle English Dictionary definitions:

    Also, my guess is that ‘troll’ is related to ‘trill’; i.e., both are imitative forms (like ‘oink’ or ‘baa’).

  2. Wow, that was a great informative post!

    I’m just a member of wordpress with a blog for all the stuff that happens to me at the dollar store I work at, and “random blog” led me to your page. Awesome reading!

  3. Juletide or Yuletide (Yultid or Jultid are older english forms see, too) – from the SWEDISH and maybe Norwegian? Jultid = christmas time; God Jul! = Merry Christmas! God = good and tid = time. probably got name of cycles of seas’ high and low water called ‘tides’ from Scandanavian, too, with the regularity being calculable (predicatable) and so set to ‘time’ (time of the high water or time of the low water, etc)

  4. Thanks ChristopherD! Now *that’s* the kind of scholarship we can enjoy sharing out here on the internet: thorough without being longwinded.

    God Jul!

    (From a merry Dane…)

  5. There was a television cartoon special – late 80’s or early 90’s – that revolved around this very carol. A group of trolls kidnapped Santa, resentful that they had no part in Christmas – until a resourceful little elf brings out this very carol to make them realize they have always been a part of the holiday…

  6. Great info! Thanks! Just for the record, though, there’s only one “hall” to deck, rather than the plural “halls.”

  7. Thank you Mark – At present I am learning the words to “Deck the Halls” to sing at an audition I’m going for. Having you explain what some of these words mean – has helped me greatly, I now have an idea what I am singing about 🙂 – you are clever!

    Isn’t it interesting how we help others – somewhere… sometime … somehow…. keep up the great work. Joanne

    from a happy Aussie (Australian)

  8. Nice site.

  9. […] also ‘to sing in the manner of a round or catch’. Makes sense. There’s even another blog post about it (including some more explanation about Deck the […]

  10. “Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol: A Glossary Marking Time”
    honestly got me personally simply hooked on ur website!
    I personallywill probably wind up being returning alot more normally.
    Thanks a lot -Ashleigh

  11. Love it Thank you 😉
    Was looking at my Holly Bush thinking what the Heck is a Bough of Holly! lol

  12. Reblogged this on Marking Time and commented:

    one of my classic blog posts… we sang some of these songs again at my church’s Christmas party last night. “Deck the halls with branches of …of ?… oh, of Stoli ! I mean of juniper, from which Stolichnaya is made, or boughs of ‘Scotch’ pine bottles, or boughs of Holly Go-lightly… ok, i will shut up now.

  13. Thanks for settling a bet between me and my husband, who made fun of me for singing “troll” when he was convinced it was “toll”. Merry Christmas!

    • you’re welcome, Julie. Merry Christ-Mass to you too. get yourself an egg nog with that five bucks you just won, or whatever you won, share it back with your husband. ha!

  14. I will also tell about it to my friends also in reality all the people known to me.

  15. Contacta con las compañías de tu base de datos y pregúntales si están satisfechos con tus servicios de limpieza.

  16. I was taught “toll” in college so now “troll” sounds wrong.

  17. I learned something new; I had always thought it was ‘toll’ as well, and was unaware of the other meaning of troll. So thank you! My other pet peeve with this song is that I think it should be Deck the Hall, singular, as in the great hall. There was generally only one per hamlet/castle. Too picky? lol

  18. Well written, very entertaining… found while making a point to another.

    ThoughT this would be helpful: “Yuletide: Yule, a word used to define both Pagan and Christian celebration and feast during the latter parts of December.

    Tide: A specific occurrence of such a variation as to differ it from other times/days/portions of a season.”

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