Ever wondered where Boxing Day gets its name from? Or why people kiss under sprigs of mistletoe? Here are the histories and meanings of 12 words that crop up at Christmas time.
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that the word ‘Christmas’ is derived from an Old English word Cristesmaesse, which means ‘Christ’s mass’. But what about ‘Xmas’? Many people believe ‘Xmas’ is a disrespectful modern abbreviation intended to take Christ out of Christmas, but that’s not true. The ‘X’ is the symbol for the Greek letter ‘chi’, which is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. ‘Xmas’ has been widely used since at least the 19th century.
‘Yule’ is another term for the festive period. It comes from the Old Norse word jol, which was the name of a pagan feast celebrating the winter solstice. A key part of the festival was the yule log – an entire tree that was burnt over 12 days. These days, the only yule log most people come across is in the form of a delicious jam-filled sponge cake that’s rolled up and covered with chocolate icing to look like a log.
- Boxing Day
The Victorians named the day after Christmas Boxing Day as many employers gave their employees or tradespeople boxes containing gifts or money on this day. Domestic staff were also usually given the day off to visit their own families, taking boxes of leftover food with them. However, the practice of distributing the contents of the ‘Christmas box’ on the day after Christmas stretches back to the Middle Ages. During this period, church parishioners collected money for the needy in alms boxes. These were opened on 26 December in honour of the feast day of St Stephen.
You know it’s nearly Christmas when your local shopping centre starts playing carols on repeat. The earliest Christmas songs are believed to date to fourth century Rome. However, it is likely that the word ‘carol’ comes from the Greek word choraulein, meaning ‘to accompany a chorus on a reed instrument’. In medieval times, it referred to a circular folk dance performed during pagan festivals such as that celebrating the winter solstice, as well as the song that accompanied it. In the Middle Ages, Christians began writing religious songs to celebrate Christmas. Some of these, such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’, are still sung today.
- Santa Claus
The jolly fellow who delivers gifts to good girls and boys on the night before Christmas is a much-loved figure, but did you know Santa’s origins can be traced to a third-century monk? Saint Nicholas, as he became known, was renowned for his piety and generosity, giving away his wealth to those in need. Later, he became known as the protector of children. The name ‘Santa Claus’ comes from the Dutch Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas, Dutch for ‘Saint Nicholas’. Other similar figures include Kris Kringle, who delivers presents to well-behaved children in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and Father Christmas, who shimmies down chimneys in the United Kingdom on Christmas Eve. Many of the elements of Santa’s story we’re familiar with – such as the flying sleigh pulled by reindeer – were popularised in the 19th century.
Santa’s most famous reindeer also has a story behind his name. Rudolph comes from the German name Hrodwulf, which is made up of the words hrod meaning ‘fame’ and wulf meaning ‘wolf’. It is likely that the name would have been given to only the fiercest of warriors.
Kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas is a British tradition dating from the 1700s, but the reason for puckering up around this particular plant is unclear. One suggestion is that mistletoe – which stays green throughout winter – is seen as a symbol of fertility and life, and this is why couples kiss beneath it. The ancient druids believed mistletoe would bring good luck and health. Other traditions portray mistletoe as a plant of peace and friendship. The word ‘mistletoe’ is a combination of mistel, an earlier name for the plant, and toe, an old English word for twig. While mistel in Old English means ‘birdlime’, a sticky substance applied to tree branches to trap birds, some believe it may have originally referred to bird droppings.
If your Christmas tree looks like it’s been hit by a tinsel tsunami, this piece festive trivia is for you: tinsel was originally a type of shimmering fabric woven with gold or silver thread. It took its name from the French word etincelle, which means sparkle. Tinsel as we know it was invented in the 17th century, when it was used to enhance the flickering of the candles used to decorate Christmas trees.
The British word for a Christmas ornament, bauble derives from the old French word for a child’s toy, beaubelet. ‘Bauble’ has been part of the English language since at least the 14th century, when it referred to showy but worthless trinkets. In Tudor times, bauble came to refer to the sceptre carried by court jesters, who were also known as bauble bearers.
In Old English, a ‘gift’ was a wedding dowry given by a groom to a bride’s parents, but the meaning was later expanded to mean something given to someone else without expectation of payment. It is likely that it comes from the same source as the German word gift, which means poison.
Advent is the four-week period leading up to Christmas Day. Historians believe that advent, which derives from the Latin word for arrival, has been celebrated since the fourth century. Since the early 1900s, many people have counted down the period from 1 December to Christmas Eve with an advent calendar. These days, many advent calendars feature numbered doors, one of which can be opened each day to reveal a picture or piece of chocolate. However, advent calendars that feature other things – such as beauty products, beer or Lego pieces – are also becoming popular.
These festive favourites date back to the 1840s when confectioner Tom Smith was inspired by the crackle of a burning log to add a snap to the ‘bon bons’ – sugared almonds wrapped in a twist of paper – that he sold at Christmas. Adding a little gift, Smith called his new product cosaques, the French word for Cossacks – possibly because the Cossack soldiers had a reputation for riding around firing guns into the air. However, the bon bons soon became known as crackers. The paper hats and corny dad jokes were added later.
And here are six forgotten Christmas words we’d like to bring back …
- Merry night: An 18th-century word for a Christmas party held in a pub
- Yuleshard: A person who still has lots of jobs to finish on Christmas Eve
- Toe-cover: 1940s slang for an inexpensive and useless present
- Belly-cheer: A 16th-century term for gluttonous eating
- Yule-hole: The hole in your belt that you need to use after you’ve eaten an enormous meal
- Crapulence: Sickness resulting from drinking or eating too much.