Oh, by golly
At some point in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” the Grinch is scheming aloud to his dog, Max, when he asks, “Are you having a holly jolly Christmas?” Even for a guy whose heart’s an empty hole, the Grinch’s question has been bothering me this holiday season. Ravenscroft was also the voice of Tony the Tiger.
Let’s quickly jump to another amazingly-named holiday singer. Burl Ives most famously sang the Christmas standard “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” The song is featured prominently in the 1964 stop-motion-animated special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” where Ives also performs the voice of the narrator, Sam the Snowman. Both Thurl and Burl’s voices will forever be ingrained in our cultural Christmas traditions.
Back to my lyrical problem: can you have a “holly, jolly” Christmas?
I understand “jolly.” Jolly is an adjective that means happy and jovial. When I hear the word “jolly,” I picture Santa laughing and his belly bouncing like a bowlful of jelly. I think because of the famous line in “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the word jolly, when used to describe a person, can come along with overweight connotations. Whether we think about it or not, the words used in our holiday songs, poems and movies build their own unique associations related to the Christmas season.
Holly is always a noun. Holly is either a proper name (Holly Golightly, Holly Hobbie, et. al.) or a shrub. The holly plant’s red berries can make your belly particularly un-jolly if ingested in high enough doses. But “holly” isn’t an adjective. A wreath is often made from holly, but holly is still a noun. You can’t have a “holly” Christmas. It’s almost as if song lyrics don’t pass through a grammar editor before they’re allowed to be recorded.
But that’s the strange thing that happens with language when it’s part of a culture--it evolves. It moves. Meanings shift and words that just happen to rhyme end up next to each other in a Christmas song sung by Burl Ives. But, at the end of the day, even though it’s technically not a grammatically correct phrase, we all know what it means to have a “holly, jolly” Christmas. It means to celebrate with people you love, share warmth and happiness, and maybe even kick back a few glasses of eggnog with Uncle Rick. What even is “nog”? That’s a question for another day.