“Deck the Hall” with Music and History

I recently attended the local Christmas Parade for our rural community. You can keep your Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, for there is nothing better than watching young children scrambling for candy thrown by the various floats. Young, shining face, full of joy and potential. Local marching bands. A variety of parade princesses and queens. A few politicians. Church groups. Bikers. And even a couple of refuse removal trucks, cleaned and not smelling of trash. LOL! 

While my family and I waited for the parade to begin, I entertained my grandchildren by showing them some of the goodies at “Backstage,” a shop that carries unique vintage costumes and accessories (to purchase or rent on consignment), situated in a building built in 1875. My grandson was most impressed with the weight of “REAL” swords and guns (actually stage props, but to a 7-year-old they looked REAL). My granddaughter loved the bonnets and masks and the crowns.




During that time, Judy Craycraft, the shop owner and former principal violinist spoke of theatre and music, etc. One of things we spoke of was the Christmas carols we were likely to hear from the bands as they marched along. When we came to “Deck the Halls,” our knowledge of the song combined. We spoke over each other: my comments dwelling on the Welsh history of the Christmas classic and hers of the musicality of the piece. Later, when the high school band playing the song came by, we discovered we sang some of the phrases differently. Doing so hatched an idea for this post. 

250px-John_Parry,_harpist.jpg “Deck the Hall” comes to us via a Welsh melody from the 16th Century. The melody is taken from “Nos Galan,” a traditional New Year’s Eve carol, published in 1794, although it is likely much older. [Goldstein, Jack (12 Nov 2013). 10 Amazing Christmas Carols, Volume 2.] John Parry (known as Parri Ddall, Rhiwabon (or, in English, Blind Parry of Ruabon) was  the first to record the Welsh air in a musical manuscript of the 1700s. Parry, who is said to have inspired Thomas Gray’s 1757 poem “The Bard,” dictated the air to his fellow-compiler, Evan Williams, his manuscript Antient British Music, published in 1741). In it was an unnamed ‘aria’ which is now called “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” Later, the song was published and named “Nos Galan.” It was found in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1784) by Edward Jones. The melody is Welsh, but the lyrics come to us via the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant, dating the piece to 1862. 

Poet John Ceiriog Hughes wrote his own lyrics to the tune. A middle verse was added by various singers, the lines changing from artist to artist. Reportedly, the melody was used by Mozart in a duet for violin and piano, “Sonata No. 18.” [“Christmas carols — William Studwell’s Christmas Carols of the Year series – chicagotribune.com”The Chicago Tribune. Tribune Newspapers. 2010.] Later, Haydn used it in the song “New Year’s Night.”

“Originally, carols were dances and not songs. The accompanying tune would have been used as a setting for any verses of appropriate metre. Singers would compete with each other, verse for verse—known as canu penillion dull y De (“singing verses in the southern style”). Consequently, tunes originally used to accompany carols became separated from the original dances, but were still referred to as “carols”.

“The Welsh and English lyrics found in the earliest publication of the “Nos Galan” melody are as follows:


The first known publication of the melody “Nos Galan”, from “Musical and poetical relicks of the Welsh bards” (1794) by Edward Jones ~ Public Domain ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deck_the_Halls#/media/File:Nos_galan.png


Wikipedia tells us, “In the original 1862 publication, Oliphant’s English lyrics were published alongside Talhaiarn’s Welsh lyrics. Although some early sources state that Oliphant’s words were a translationof Talhaiarn’s Welsh original,[6] this is not the case in any strict or literal sense. The first verse in Welsh, together with a literal English translation taken from Campbell’s Treatise on the language, poetry, and music of the Highland Clans (1862), is given for comparison:

So, which is your version of “Deck the Hall” or is it “Deck the Halls”? 

Thomas Oliphant’s version first appeared in Welsh Melodies With Welsh and English Poetry (Volume 2), which was published in 1862. As was mentioned above, Thomas Oliphant, a Scottish musician wrote the lyrics. These lyrics first appeared in a four volume set, authored by John Thomas, and entitled Welsh Melodies. The entry contained Oliphant’s English words, along side of the Welsh words, recorded by John Jones (Talhaiarn). The repeated “fa la la la la” is likely a left over of medieval ballads. Those lyrics are as follows: 

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!
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Troul the ancient Christmas carol, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

See the flowing bowl before us, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Strike the harp and join the chorus. Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Follow me in merry measure, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
While I sing of beauty’s treasure, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Fast away the old year passes, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses! Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Laughing, quaffing all together, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Heedless of the wind and weather, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!


The English words of Deck the Hall With Boughs of Holly are not a translation. This is Thomas Oliphant’s original publication of the words of the Christmas carol. Source Original publication: “Welsh Melodies with Welsh and English Poetry”, volume 2. Published by Addison, Hollier and Lucas, 210 Regent Street, London, England. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Original_printed_version_of_Deck_the_Hall_with_Boughs_of_Holly.pdf


This version’s lyrics appeared in the December 1877 issue of the Pennsylvania School Journal. In this version, there is no longer any reference to drinking, runs as follows:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la la la la!
‘Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la la la la!
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la la la la la la!
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la la la la!

See the blazing yule before us, Fa la la la la la la la!
Strike the harp and join the chorus, Fa la la la la la la la!

Follow me in merry measure, Fa la la la la la la la!
While I tell of Yuletide treasure, Fa la la la la la la la!

Fast away the old year passes, Fa la la la la la la la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses, Fa la la la la la la la!
Sing we joyous all together! Fa la la la la la la la!
Heedless of the wind and weather, Fa la la la la la la la!


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deck_the_Halls#/media/File:Deck_the_hall.png ~ Public Domain ~ Pennsylvania School Journal, 1877


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, customs and tradiitons, history, medieval, music, Scotland, Wales and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Deck the Hall” with Music and History

  1. MaryAnn Nagy says:

    Thanks for sharing. I can picture your grandson looking at the swords with big eyes wide open and your grand daughter admiring those bonnets. Interesting about the music. Nothing puts you in the spirit of Christmas like music

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