'Deck the Halls' Song History

This Christmas carol was once an ode to New Year's Eve

christmas decoration
christmas decoration. photo: Getty Images

The popular "Deck the Halls" song is a Christmas carol that dates back to the sixteenth century. It wasn't always associated with Christmas, however; the melody comes from a Welsh winter song called "Nos Galan," which is actually about New Year's Eve. 

 

The first time "Deck the Halls" was published with English lyrics was in 1862, in Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2, featuring Welsh lyrics by John Jones and English lyrics written by Thomas Oliphant.

'Deck the Halls' and Songwriter Thomas Oliphant

Oliphant was a Scottish songwriter and author who was responsible for many popular songs and writings. He made his way by writing new lyrics to old melodies, interpreting foreign songs into English; not necessarily directly translating, but, as in "Deck the Halls," coming up with lyrics that fit the mood of the song. He became a lyricist for the court of Queen Victoria and eventually became a popular translator of music. 

Where the old Welsh lyrics for "Nos Galan" sang of the impending new year, Oliphant's folk composition in English lauded the onset of the Christmas holiday, calling for the decoration and merriment which typically accompanies the celebration, including a line about drinking that was later revised: 

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la la la la la
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la la la la la
Fill the 
mead cup, drain the barrel
Fa la la la la la la la la
Troll the ancient yuletide carol
Fa la la la la la la la la

Whereas the original Welsh lyrics were about winter, love and cold weather:

Oh! How soft my fair one's bosom,
Fa la la la la la la la la 
Oh! How sweet the grove in blossom,
Fa la la la la la la la la 
Oh! How blessed are the blisses,
Fa la la la la la la la la 
Words of love, and mutual kisses,
Fa la la la la la la la la  

Oliphant was interested in capturing the spirit of the song, including the "fa la la" refrain. This part of the song, which has become its signature feature in modern iterations, was probably an addition from the middle ages when there was a tendency of Madrigal choruses to fill songs with a kind of vocal break between verses.

'Deck the Halls' Madrigal Influence

Madrigals were a traditional secular musical form during the Rennaissance in Europe and were typically sung a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment). They usually featured poetry set to music, with a composer adding "accompaniment" sections for some voices (such as "fa la la"). 

Oliphant was Honorary Secretary of the Madrigal Society, where he mostly reinterpreted Italian madrigal songs into English. Most of his translations were in a similar style to "Deck the Halls," with entirely new lyrics set to familiar melodies. 

American Christmas Carol

Another version of the lyrics, which removes the references to drinking and is close to the one commonly recited today, was published in the 1877 edition of the Pennsylvania School Journal. It still uses the singular "Hall" and changes "Yuletide" to "Christmas."

Deck the hall with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la la la la la  
Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la la la la la  
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa la la la la la la la la  
Troll the ancient Christmas carol
Fa la la la la la la la la  

But the modern version of "Deck the Halls," which is sung by choirs and carolers across the country, is the one published in an 1866 songbook titled simply The Song Book (although in that publication it's titled "Deck the Hall"). 

The pluralization of "halls" is probably something that just took shape as more and more people took to singing it. By then, the song had been appropriated by folk musicians and others, including Mozart, who used it as a launching pad for a piano-violin duet.