Top Christmas Carol Mystery Lyrics Explained

Filed under: Holidays, Music

santa picture

Even Santa can get stumped by some Christmas lyrics. Illustration by Christopher Healy

Kids are loaded with questions this time of year. How does Santa fit down the chimney? Why do I have to wear that sweater Aunty Ruthie gave me? What does wassailing mean? That last one, at least, we can help you out with. Along with other entirely reasonable queries about eternally confusing lyrics to classic holiday songs.

1. What is the Feast of Stephen? And why is King Wenceslas celebrating that instead of Christmas? The Feast of St. Stephen, a.k.a. St. Stephen's Day, is a Christian holiday -- and a public one in several European countries -- honoring the first Christian martyr. It falls on December 26th or 27th (depending on the country), so I think that technically makes "Good King Wenceslas" a post-Christmas carol. According to the website,, a one-time tradition for holiday was to chase and kill a wren (the symbol of St. Stephen). Then you'd tie the dead bird to a holly bush and decorate it with ribbons. Cheery, no? Makes you really hope that partridge in the pear tree was still chirping.

2. Speaking of which, what's a French hen? It sounds delicious. Faverolles are a breed of tufted French chickens that are pretty fancy-looking and lay tinted eggs, so I suppose they might have made nice gifts back when "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written.

3. And while we're on the topic: Since when is Christmas 12 days long? Well, since the beginning of Christianity. For centuries, people celebrated Christmas as a nearly two-week extravaganza, from December 25th to January 5th. The Feast of St. Stephen was actually the second day of Christmas (Hey, it's all starting to come together now). The last day was known as "Twelfth Night" -- as in the Shakespeare title -- and was the traditional time for wassailing.

4. Oh, yeah: What's wassailing? Does it have something to do with that town Sarah Palin is from? No. Wassailing is an ancient tradition of going door-to-door singing Christmas songs. Cute people in very quaint towns still do it today.

5. Carols at someone's door I get, but what about "carols at the spinet?" Ah, yes. That line comes from "We Need a Little Christmas," which is actually a Broadway show tune. It first appeared in the musical "Mame." A spinet is a small, upright piano -– just the type of instrument you often see adorable families standing around and singing "Jingle Bells."

6. That reminds me: What's a bobtail? You know: "Bells on bobtails ring?" A bobtail is a horse that has had its tail cut short. We can assume that the one horse pulling that open sleigh has had such a trim, and that it is wearing bells that do indeed jingle. We can also assume that the term bobtail was less perplexing to people back when that song was written.

7. Speaking of sleigh rides, what is, or who are Currier and Ives? Well, it's definitely not "courier endives," as I once thought the lyric said, assuming it to be about some sort of special salad green for messengers. When the song "Sleigh Ride" compares the holiday scene to "a picture print by Currier & Ives," it's referring to the nineteenth-century duo of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives who produced a lot of bucolic art prints that were iconic of the era, including several featuring sleigh rides, like "American Homestead Winter," "Trotting Cracks in the Snow," and "A Spill Out on the Snow," the last of which depicts a somewhat scary sleigh collision and feels like the 1800s version of Failblog.

8. What's up with scary stuff at Christmas? "The Most Wonderful Time of Year" says, "there'll be scary ghost stories." Were the songwriters thinking of Halloween? No, they were probably thinking of the old tradition in the U.K. of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Dylan Thomas, in his story, "A Child's Christmas in Wales," mentions just such a tale-telling by the fire, and the play adaptation of the Dylan's story shows the family trying to one-up one another with increasingly frightening yarns. The truly mysterious bit here is that "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" was written in the 1960s by two American guys. Spooky.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.