The Daily Telegraph Book of Carols, a fascinating collection researched and written by Ian Bradley, which was published last year and sat on my bookshelf for months before it called out to me late last night. Bradley gives us the background:
'Deck the hall' is a very free translation of a Welsh dance-carol traditionally sung at New Year's Eve. It belongs to the distinctive Welsh tradition of canu penillion in which merrymakers would dance in a ring around a harpist. Verses, either extemporized or remembered, would be thrown in by the dancers in turn with the harp playing the answering bars now made up with the 'fal, la la's'. Those who failed to come up with a new verse would fall out of the dance. 'Nos Galan' is first found in Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards published in 1784 by the harpist Edward Jones but the melody almost certainly goes back before that. Despite the fact that Jones heads the song 'Nos Galan' (New Year's Eve) the text in his version is a love song. In fact, the tune seems to have carried many different words before becoming specifically associated with New Year festivities.... The original Welsh New Year carol seems to have been turned into an English Christmas song in the latter part of the nineteenth century as part of the Victorian re-invention of Christmas. The first known appearance in print of 'Deck the hall' is in The Franklin Square Song Collection edited by J. P. McCaskey in 1881. The authorship of the English words, which, apart from the reference in the third verse to the passing of the old year and the coming of the new, bear no relation to the Welsh original, has never been established. Numerous variations are found in all three verses. The third line of the first verse is sometimes rendered 'Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel' or 'Fill the beer up, drain the barrel'. In the second verse the first line is often 'See the flowing bowl before us' and the last 'While I sing of beauty's treasure'. Several versions of the song extol singers at the end of the first verse to 'Troll the ancient Christmas carol'. In the third verse, the third line is often rendered 'Laughing, quaffing, all together'. Essentially this is a carol where the words don't really matter too much. The great thing is the tune and all those fa, la, las which according to the erudite editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols seem to have begun as substitutes in the original dance tune when no harp was present. It is not known what steps were danced to the original Welsh carol.I would really like to hear someone sing the line, "Laughing, quaffing, all together." What's that old saying? "If it laughs like a deck, and it quaffs like a deck... then deck the halls."