Bells on what tails ring? Holiday lyrics we love to butcher

© Guido Vrola - Fotolia.comEvery holiday season, we resurrect the songs we learned as kids — and continue to sing them like 8-year-olds, guessing at lyrics we never really understood in the first place. (Just watch Amy Poehler and Billy Eichner trying to get people to sing Christmas carols with them on the streets of New York…)

This hilarious and bizarrely fascinating practice of substituting words for what we think we’re hearing in a song (i.e. did he say Parson Brown or pants of brown?) has an equally wonderful name — a mondegreen.  A good example of a holiday mondegreen is ‘Olive, the Other Reindeer,’ a book and movie that sprung from the line in ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ that starts, “All of the other reindeer…”  You get the picture.

Last year, I dug into a few lyrical questions that raise eyebrows every time Christmas rolls around: Who the hell is Parson Brown is in ‘Winter Wonderland’? What exactly are good tidings in ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’?  Why do we deck the halls/don gay apparel/troll the yuletide carol?  What part of speech is is ‘Jingle Bells’?

This year, I add a few more to the list to help raise our collective Christmas carol IQs:

1.) The 12 Days of Christmas: There’s no such thing as a calling bird.
I used to pride myself in knowing the song pretty well, until I found out I was totally butchering the fourth day of Christmas — you know, “Four calling birds,” right? Well, unless you’re talking about a penguin on an iPhone, there’s no such thing as a calling bird.

But a colly bird, on the other hand, is a blackbird — which fits a whole lot better with the three french hens, two turtle doves, and that good old partridge. I felt a little better knowing I wasn’t alone on this — NBC recently ranked this the #1 most misheard holiday song.

2.) Jingle Bells: Bells on what tails ring?
Perhaps one of the greatest debates around ‘Jingle Bells’ is what part of speech it is — who, if anyone, is jingling those bells? But even the lyrics, which seem fairly simple at first, have one little line that tends to trip people up: “Bells on bobtail ring.”

It turns out there are an inconsequential number of people asking the Internet what exactly that means. Well, in the 1800s, there was a practice of cutting horses’ tails short (which has since been deemed cruel). This shortened tail was known as a bobtail. There you go.

3.) Here We Come A-Wassailing: Apparently, this song isn’t about waffles.
There’s a reason why the title of this song has changed over the years to ‘Here We Go A-Caroling’ — nobody seems to know what wassailing (or wasselling) is anymore.  As a kid, I heard this as “Here we go a waffling,” imagining that maybe the song came from Belgium.

It turns out wassailing actually sounds like a way better version of caroling, because it involves drinking wassail (a hot mulled cider). FYI, the term wassailing translates to “be in good health” and it stems from a tradition of promoting a good harvest for the coming year.

So there you have it. More fun holiday song factoids for you to bust out around the open-fire. Happy holidays!

4 thoughts on “Bells on what tails ring? Holiday lyrics we love to butcher

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