John Larrysson Column: Deck the Halls (Part 1 of 2)
To Deck the Halls with Evergreen

Last year I explained the old song We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Originally the singers would assemble outside the house of a very rich person and demand food and drink. This year I will tell you about the old British/Welsh song Deck the Halls. There is so much to explain about this popular song that it will have to be spread over two weeks.

The original song was about winter and the New Year, not Christmas. It was also in Welsh and was called Nos Galan. Thomas Oliphant (1799–1873) wrote the English version. Astute readers will notice that all his work is now in the public domain. He was very successful at translating and slightly rewriting songs from other languages into English.

audio 1

This song has some strange sounding older words. Here they are explained verse by verse.


Deck the halls with boughs of holly,


Fa la la la la, la la la la.


The word deck can mean, the floor of a ship or train, a large porch, a set of cards (US) or the verb to hit someone causing them to fall to the deck (floor). In this song a much older meaning is used, which is (the verb) to decorate (also spelled bedeck).

Holly is an evergreen plant. (Note: A picture would be helpful.) The leaves of evergreen plants remain green all year long and do not shed their leaves in autumn. So the ancient British considered holly magical and protection against the cruelty of winter. They would bring boughs (branches) of it indoors to make their home look more alive.

audio 2


Tis the season to be jolly,


Fa la la la la, la la la la.


As you may have guessed tis is an old contraction of it is.


Don we now our gay apparel,


Fa la la, la la la, la la la.


Some words in the song are not commonly used today. The verb don means to put on clothing. In those days, gay meant brightly coloured or happy. The sexual meaning of gay is very recent. Some copies of the song needlessly censor the harmless old word gay, "Don we now our g** apparel". The word apparel means clothing.

Next week I will Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, in part two of Deck the Halls.

audio 3

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.


General Enquiry

We welcome enquiries and feedback. Please contact us through [email protected]