Again, it’s that time of year when we are compelled to listen to Christmas-themed music we have known all our lives. With any other genre these songs would be called oldies, sometimes prefaced with golden or moldy but old Christmas songs do not suffer the same fate. These seasonal songs are now known as carols or hymns, but as much as we would like some of them to go away, they will never completely fade into history because they are all considered tradition. Since they are so ingrained in our society, it’s curious we don’t take more care in teaching the lyrics to our children.

We learn Christmas carols before we are old enough to even be familiar with all the words. As we turn these songs over in our heads, we seek out the meaning in the lyrics by twisting the song to fit what we know.

In the Christmas song “Jingle Bells,” I thought the lyrics went: “Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-fourth open sleigh.” Hey, it makes perfect sense. You don’t want to go riding in the snow completely unprotected but, then again, a sleigh ride in a tightly enclosed bubble insulates you too much from the experience. A one-fourth open sleigh would be open just enough, like a convertible where you can still have the windows up and the heat blasting. Oh, what fun.

In “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” I was pretty sure I had the lyrics all figured out: “Glory to the new born King, Peace on earth and earth be mild, God and sin, his second child.” Yikes. Well this deserves an explanation. (For those of you who think and hear like I do, and I can only pray that it’s only a very few, the correct lyrics are “God and sinners reconciled.”)

God, as I understood, had an “only begotten” son, whatever that means, and so as a kid I figured it wouldn’t be much of an issue, God being all powerful, to have a second child. The Church’s reasoning had always seemed obscure so this thinking fit in nicely. Going further, since God could have anything He wanted, choosing Sin as a second child couldn’t possibly be a problem (outside of the certainty that Sin would indeed be a “problem child”).

My other misheard Christmas song lyrics are rather mundane, but other people’s mistaken words are quite amusing:

Frosty, the snowman is not only a jolly happy soul, but he has a “corncob pipe, and a butt, and nose.”

In “The First Noel,” people have heard “No hell, no hell, no hell, no hell, Barney’s the King of His Rhyl.”

And there are these classics:

• Where the tree tops glisten and children listen to hear slave elves in the snow …

• Get dressed ye merry gentlemen let nothing through this May …

• Fall on you niece, and hear the angel voices …

• He’s making a list of chicken and rice …

• Oh come lettuce, adore Him …

In my youth our very Polish family would get together on Christmas Eve and torture the children with the promise that gifts would be distributed only after a long, drawn-out and formal dinner followed by the singing of carols around the Christmas tree. First the Polish carols and then the English. How many carols? They would sing until no one could remember any more carols to sing. The wait for the presents was excruciating. One Christmas, if I remember correctly, the singing concluded around January 3rd. There was alcohol involved.

All this background is to explain that I not only misunderstood the lyrics of English carols but of the Polish ones as well. My Polish vocabulary was frightfully limited. There was one carol in particular about a Speckled Duck where some of the words escaped me. I asked my younger sister what the duck was holding on her arm. My sister replied that she thought it was her breast. Fair enough, the duck was sitting on a stone with her breast on her arm and playing beautifully; never mind that ducks don’t have breasts. Well they do in the same way that chickens have breasts but that’s not how I was thinking.

Twenty, maybe thirty years passed and I got a correction from my sister. The word in the song she thought meant breast actually means bagpipes.

Well then … that makes a lot more sense.

Deck the halls with bras of holly!