Learn English Vocabulary: Understand Popular Christmas Carols

Once Thanksgiving is over and the holiday season officially begins, it’s difficult to avoid Christmas carols piping through the speakers of public spaces all over the United States. (A carol, by the way, is a religious folk song.) As a native speaker, I admittedly sang these songs for years without actually understanding what they meant; many contain idioms and old English terms that are not commonly used in conversational English.

Read on for some explanations on popular Christmas carols:

Deck the Halls:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly…”

In this song, “deck” means to decorate. Holly is an evergreen plant with red berries that is used to decorate homes during the Christmas season. So this song is about getting ready for Christmas, by decorating a space with colorful green leaves and red berries.

Here We Come A-wassailing (The Wassail Song):

“Here we come a-wassailing…”

Wassail is an old-English term. You won’t hear it in everyday conversation, but it is popularly known by this song. To wassail is to go from door to door, singing Christmas carols and spreading good cheer. So this song is about spreading the good will and spirit of the holiday season.

Mr. Grinch:

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel…”

No holiday celebration in the USA is complete without a nod to Mr. Grinch. A fictional green monster created by the children’s book author Dr. Seuss, the Grinch sets out to ruin Christmas and discovers the true spirit of the holiday in the process. This song celebrates how mean and disagreeable the Grinch is in his natural state. Although most of us know the word “heel” as the back part of a foot or the bottom part of a shoe, in this song “heel” refers to a bad person or villain.

For Auld Lang Syne:

“That thou canst never once reflect, On old long syne.”

This is perhaps one of the most puzzling holiday songs, traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve. Auld Lang Syne is an old Scottish term that loosely means long, long ago. In the context of this song, it is about remembering and reflecting back on times long past.

You can listen for these phrases when you are out and about during the holiday season. Whether you love them or hate them, Christmas carols are a great opportunity to practice your listening skills!

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