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Deck the Halls Christmas song began as competitive Welsh New Year's Eve drinking song

You may associate Deck The Halls with the season to be jolly - but for Welsh revellers bringing in the New Year in the 1700s, it was more than a song. It was a competition.

The truth about Deck the Halls - two John Parrys, a drinking game and a maiden in the clover

You may think Christmas songs are simply celebrations of the season to be jolly - but sometimes, there's a lot more behind the music than you think. (Allison Hare/Flickr)

You may associate Deck The Halls with the season to be jolly - but for Welsh revellers bringing in the New Year in the 1700s, it was more than a song. It was a competition.

The popular Christmas carol originally comes from a Welsh folk song called Nos Galan, which meant New Year's Eve in 18th century Welsh.

"The context of the Nos Galan song would be really merry evenings around the fire," Wyn James, lecturer in Modern Welsh Literature at Cardiff University and a member of the International Ballad Commission, told Daybreak South's Chris Walker.

"The neighbours would gather together. You wouldn't have central heating in those days, of course, so they gathered together around the fire and they'd entertain each other."

James said traditionally, people would drink and make merry, while competing in turns to see who could sing the most four line verses to a particular tune.

The competitor would sing one line of the verse, then an instrument — or their friends — would repeat the melody.

"What happens when you don't have the instrumental element? You get people joining in...They sing ,'Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.'"

From Nos Galan to Deck The Halls

But how did we get from a competitive Welsh drinking song to a cheery English Christmas carol?

That story begins with a harpist known as Blind John Parry, who dictated a transcription of the music to Nos Galan in 1740. 

Around 100 years later, another harpist, coincidentally also named John Parry, published the lyrics, both Welsh and English, in an edited volume of Welsh airs.

While the English version, titled Deck The Halls, was all about Christmas, the Welsh lyrics were slightly different.

"[The Welsh lyrics] have nothing to do with Christmas at all," said James. "They actually refer to how lovely it is to be kissing a maiden in the clover."

Despite the difference, there are still hints of the original Welsh drinking song in the fourth verse of Deck The Halls, which calls on revellers to "Follow me in merry measure."

One final thought. How do say Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in Welsh? Try: Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

To find out how to pronounce that - and listen to more Deck the Halls, click the audio labelled: Drinking song, Deck the Halls, gets Christmas treatment.


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