“Deck the Halls,” the traditional New Year, Yuletide and Christmas carol was originally titled - “Deck the Hall.” The melody of the carol dates back to the sixteenth century, with the original music being Welsh. The music is also inspired by “Nos Galan,” a Welsh carol created for New Years’ Eve that came out in 1794.
In 1862, the English version of the carol was written by Thomas Oliphant, a Scottish musician. His work on this carol was first published in the second volume of “Welsh Melodies” in the same year. The Welsh melodies, a set of four volumes crafted by John Thomas. In this book, the Welsh lyrics of “Deck the Halls” were authored by John Jones while Thomas Oliphant wrote the English words.
It is widely considered that Thomas Oliphant merely translated Talhaiarn’s (the bardic name of Jon Jones) Welsh version, as both versions were published simultaneously. However, there is no literal or strict proof in this regard. The first verse of the carol is Welsh. A subsequent English translation follows, which is derived from Campbell’s “Treatise” - a work on music, poetry, and language of the Highland clans.
An identical printed copy was published in “The Franklin Square Song Collection’ four years down the road from 1862. There are various altered versions present that offer subtle changes in lyrics - the word “Christmas” to “Yuletide” or “Yule.” Another iteration uses “Yuletide carol” instead of “Christmas carol.” The phrase “‘Tis is the season” from the song has now become a popular connotation of the holiday season.
The music of “Deck the Halls” is arranged in the “AABA” format. The tune exudes a hint of classic Welsh air and originates from John Parry, Welsh harpist of the 1700s. The folk singers of that time are responsible for the middle verse. Initially, carols were not songs, but dance forms. The tune accompanying them was just utilized as a base for any appropriate verses. Also, competitions were held between singers - “canu penillion dull y De” or “verse for verse.” As a result, the tunes that accompanied the carols gained their own separate identity. They were split up from the dance forms but continued to be called carols.
In 1877, the third “fa la la” line was omitted from the Pennsylvania version of the carol. The fourth “fa la la” line is also different from the original Welsh version. The fourth verse in the initial version has more of an arpeggiated melody, while the third verse has a completely contrasting rhythm and tone.
’Tis the season
This phrase evokes an archaic and quaint language that is generally associated with Christmas carols. It is widely speculated that this phrase made its first appearance in “Deck the Halls.” The pronunciation of ‘tis has a rather interesting history. It’s a contraction of “it is.” A proclitic is a word that bears a close connection to the pronunciation of the word that follows it. This generally happens when a person doesn’t have enough time to speak two separate words and rolls it off the song. As “Deck the Halls” utilizes the music of “Nos Gallan,” a drinking song meant for New Year's Eve, the subtle usage of 'Tis feels like quite a tongue-in-cheek gesture.
Usage in Popular Culture
- In 1881, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart utilized the tune of “Deck the Halls” to create a piano and violin duet.
- Joseph Haydn used the tune of the carol in the song titled “New Year's Night.”
- J.P. McCaskey edited the lyrics of “Deck the Halls” for the “Franklin Square Song Collection.”
- In 1994, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the eminent rock band recorded a witty “banter“ version of the carol. It was a unique “jukebox only” seven-inch single version that was released through their album “Out in L.A.” Also, the band added the song “Knock Me Down” as a b-side from “Mother's Milk,” their 1989 album.
- In 1999, “SHeDAISY,” the country music band crafted an adaptation of the carol. This version was incorporated in “Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas,” a Disney animated movie. In 2000, the band further included the song in “Brand New Year,” their Christmas album. The music video of “Brand New Year” also had segments from “Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas.”
Madrigal is a secular and traditional music form of the early Baroque and Renaissance era in Europe. They were traditionally performed as a cappella, i.e. without any instrumental support. This form of music featured a base of poetry that was set to music. The composer subsequently added the “accompaniment” section featuring some voices. Thomas Oliphant predominantly converted Italian Madrigal songs into English and also held the position of Honorary Secretary at the “Madrigal Society.” The majority of his translations offered a fleeting similarity to the style implemented in “Deck the Halls.”
There was a palpable sense of uniformity prevalent, new and unique lyrics set to a familiar set of melodies. This tone of resemblance is also captured in the musical setting of “Deck the Halls.” Oliphant displayed his interest in apprehending the true spirit of the carol’s music by incorporating the “fa la la” refrain. This section of the song has become quite a signature in all modern iterations. This refrain is presumed to be an addition influenced by the Madrigal form, which typically included vocal breaks between each verse.
“Deck the Halls” welcomes the impending new year, lauding the onset of merriment and decoration that accompanies the festive season. It is truly an emotional, expressive, and life-enhancing experience that leaves a mark in the grand history of Christmas carols.
- About Christmas song, "Deck the Halls" on Music for Music Teachers
- About "Deck the Halls" on CBC for New Year drinking song
- About the tradition of "Deck the Halls" on How Stuff Works
- About the Christmas word ['Tis] on Super Linguo
Related piano sheet music: