By Ninth District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith
Christmas is a time of tradition, for families, communities, and throughout our society. For those of us who celebrate, like me, we each have our favorite customs about this season, whether attending a family gathering or town parade or just hearing a favorite Christmas carol.
How those traditions become things we return to year after year make for interesting stories on their own.
One story caught my eye recently on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website about the phrase “tis the season,” a phrase often said around this time of year originating in the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls.”*
As someone with Welsh ancestry, and as chairman of the Congressional Friends of Wales Caucus, I was glad to learn that this beloved carol had notable Welsh roots. According to Merriam-Webster, the carol’s tune was apparently first recorded in a 1784 book entitled Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards. The book was written by Edward Jones, a harpist for the then-Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, and Jones dedicated his work to the Prince.
A century later, the Welsh tune became linked to a Welsh lyricist. In 1884, a book called The Song Book: Words and Tunes from the Best Poets and Musicians reported that the lyrics to “Deck the Halls” were a translation by Thomas Oliphant of lyrics written by John Jones, a poet who also went by the Welsh name Talhaiarn.
Those lyrics included “tis the season,” but they also include the syllables “fa la la la la,” and the carol’s Welsh origins are important in understanding their inclusion.
Merriam-Webster quotes composer John Rutter as saying the song was originally intended for performance by a group of singers and a harpist, the harp being Wales’ national instrument. The singers would sing a verse, the harpist would improvise, the singers would move to the next verse, and so on. But harpists are not always available, nor do harps occupy such a prominent place in our culture as they do in that of Wales. As Rutter said, “That only worked in Wales where they had harpists on every street corner.” So “fa la la la la” would be sung to take the harp’s place.
Before reading this article, I had not been aware of the link between Wales and this Christmas carol so widely known and sung in our culture. One of the remarkable aspects of the Christmas season is how traditions from so many parts of the world have been blended into the celebrations in our country. You may participate in several without thinking much about it – for example, if you put up a Christmas tree in your house, a custom brought to our country by settlers from Germany.
The variety of these traditions for one holiday speaks to the universal message of the Christmas season and also to the melting pot of American culture. We should be thankful that we live in a country where we can celebrate, or not celebrate, according to our beliefs.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic impedes our enjoyment of some of these customs. Community celebrations have been curtailed or cancelled, families are reconsidering whether to have as big a gathering as they might normally have, and the festivities that do take place have as a backdrop the pandemic that has inflicted so much suffering.
Most of us have some aspect of the season we treasure that will not take place as usual this year. I enjoy participating in Christmas parades in the different towns of the Ninth District. After riding through a town saying, “Merry Christmas” and seeing the bright eyes of children and hearing the warm wishes of the adults, I find it impossible to finish a parade without simply feeling good about the world.
Christmas remains a time of hope, and the traditions we come back to each year are also the traditions we can look forward to. I invite you to share some of your own on my official Facebook page where this column is posted.
If you celebrate Christmas, however you do so this year, I hope that it will bring you comfort and joy, and I wish you a happy and healthy New Year.