The Christmas carol Deck the Halls has a long history that begins in Wales, where the music was a dancing song that dates back to at least the sixteenth century. The first published lyrics for the song were written by the Welsh poet John Ceiriog Hughes and titled “Nos Galan,” which means New Year’s Eve. Here’s his original lyrics converted to English, with the fa-la-las between each line left out:
Cold is the man who can’t love,
The old mountains of dear Wales,
To him and his warmest friend,
A cheerful holiday next year.
To the troubled, cold are the bills,
Which come during the holidays,
Listening to a sermon in one verse,
Spending more than you earn,
Cold is the snow on Mount Snowdon,
Even though it has a flannel blanket on it,
Cold are the people who don’t care,
To meet together on New Year’s Eve.
Dr. Ian Bradley, a Scottish theologian who researched the song, said that it came from North Wales and also was known as the Nantgarw Flower Dance. “Originally carols were dances and not songs,” he told Wales Online last year.
In a 1999 post on the Minstrel mailing list, Monica Hultin writes that the song originated as a dance with improvised lyrics between either harp notes or sung syllables:
It belongs to the competitive canu penillion tradition, in which merry makers would dance in a ring around a harpist, extemporizing verses in turn and dropping out when invention failed. The harp originally played the “answering” bars … but nonsense syllables came to be substituted as harpers became less common.
The current lyrics to the carol have been sung for a century and are of American origin. They may have come from Welsh miners who emigrated to the Appalachian Mountains.
When you sing “fa la la la la, la la la la” this Christmas, think about how those notes were intended to buy time until a dancer could come up with the next lyric. As nice as the song is, it’s almost a shame that nobody makes up their own words.