“Glad tidings we bring… to you and your thing!…”

Somehow halfway through that line everyone else had suddenly begun to sing much more quietly and my voice was rather… salient. There may have been a glance or two in my direction. Oh, come on, people, it’s a carol sing! Make merry! Play around a bit! Glad tidings, you know?

Tidings is one of the classic Christmas words, right up there with hark. It does get used in other places – there’s a wine magazine that used to be called Wine Tidings (it’s now Quench) – but most of its great cultural associations have to do with Christmas, a prime vector being the King James Version rendition of Luke 2:10: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” From that it spread to carols such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (quoted above) and “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (“O, tidings of comfort and joy”), and on to assorted cultural references.

What, exactly, are (is? are? both conjugations are used in literature) tidings? In short, they are (it is) news. But not just any news! Oh, no, no. This is a word with poetical and Biblical associations, which means that the news is classic, timeless, historic, epic, important, portentous… A friend who says “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings” is drawing on that tone, probably for self-consciously pompous effect; it would seem too self-important to use for a death or other actual grave event, but it would be quite suitable for a fallen soufflé or a dearth of chocolate or the discovery that the liquor store is quite out of the preferred brand of Cognac for mixing with the expensive eggnog. (Martell, by the way.)

All of which may befall us sooner or later; time and tide happen to us all. And yes, that tide is tied to this tidings. The ancient root from which they both spring is a Germanic stem referring to happenings, befallings, incidents and accidents; the sense of hints and allegations – the news of the incidents and accidents – comes from that. As the tide happens to come in and go out, and the tides of the time turn, and as other things betide us all, we get the tidings, just as the new things that occur are reported as the news. And yes, you can also have a singular tiding, but usually we get the plural (though, as I have said, sometimes it’s treated as a singular, as news is); it seems that just one tiding is not often enough to tide us over.

So when an advent for the ages is reported, of course it’s tidings. But of great joy, people! Even if we’re in an Estonian Lutheran church basement! We were singing our carols just downstairs from where Aina and I had gotten married a mere few years earlier, and I was going to do my thing, even if that’s news to some of you.

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