One of the things I enjoyed quite a lot when I was young was going carol singing with my siblings. We visited neighbours houses in the dark evenings and serenaded them with our favourite carols. As a teenager I joined my local Methodist youth club in carolling around the rural village where I was brought up.
Most people confuse carols with hymns. Hymns are specifically religious, but carols don’t need to have any religious content at all and yet still be seasonal. Today’s subject is one such carol and one of the most popular – “Deck the Halls”. It also caused a bit of a stir in an American school and a major retail chain for all the wrong reasons.
I imagine that this has happened in other places at other times, but in December 2011 a music teacher at the Cherry Knoll Elementary School in Traverse City, Michigan, decided her young pupils would not sing the traditional line in the carol that goes “Don we know our gay apparel”. The reason she gave was that the children kept giggling every time they sang the word “gay”. What the teacher substituted instead was “bright”. Changing the lyric just because children were giggling at it is a pretty lame excuse, if you ask me.
When some of the children’s parents found out they were surprised and wanted it changed back. When the Principal of the school, Chris Parker, found out he too requested that the word “gay” be reinstated into the pupil’s songsheets. He commented that the whole incident could have been handled as an educational exercise, after all that’s what teachers are paid for.
Some of the pupils were very young. They were first and second graders and probably thought of “gay” as something of a taboo word and may not have been aware of any other definition of the word other than the sexual one. They had probably never heard it being used in any other way. Its older sense meaning “bright” is rarely used today, mainly because of the extensive modern use in the context of homosexuality. I know when I was at school at that age there were many innocuous words that made us giggle and think we were saying something that was somehow rude. I’m so old that even saying the word “sex” was rude when I was 6 years old!
On a side note, if the teacher thought the word “gay” was being misinterpreted by the pupils, why didn’t she change other words they probable wouldn’t have heard before as well? Would the children know what “don” and “apparel” meant?
However, another group of people – grown-ups, this time – fell into the same embarrassing situation two years later. I don’t know if it was through over-zealous political correction or just ignorance of the public’s intelligence.
In 2013 the greetings card giant Hallmark decided to produce a Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a tiny knitted sweater. On it was stitched the words “Don we now our FUN apparel” As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “In attempting to avoid a controversy, Hallmark had apparently offended almost everyone.”
Again, the public rose almost as one in response and complained about, and even ridiculed, the decision to change “gay” to “fun”. Didn’t Hallmark know that the carol is more well-known as they are and likely to be around long after they’ve gone? Millions of us have grown up with this carol, and we are intellectually capable of recognising the actual meaning of the lyrics.
A rather pathetic excuse given by Hallmark was that the word “gay” has multiple meanings and they changed it because they thought it would “leave our intent open to misinterpretation”. That “intent” was to introduce a feeling of “fun” into celebrations (as if using the word “gay” was going to stop the fun!). Then they turned the apology around by blaming the popular use of wearing colourful festive sweaters. That sounds pretty lame as well, as if they wouldn’t have changed the word if they had used the line on a different type of ornament or card.
Perhaps it was all just a publicity stunt. Commercial companies like creating controversy to boost their sales. The “fun” ornament was removed from Hallmark’s stores but it remained on sale on their website.
Many lgbt choirs include “Deck the Halls” in their Christmas repertoire, and I doubt any of them will change the lyrics, and I also doubt if any of them have not resisted the urge to parody the lyrics in the name of harmless seasonal fun. That’s how it should be. Gay is a harmless word and isn’t the only word in the English language that has more than one interpretation – comedians build their careers on exploiting the different meanings of words.
Let’s end with the carol itself. Here’s a rather formal rendition of the carol sung by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.