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An assortment of different coloured baubles.

Unwrapping Christmas

21st December 2023

Christmas has its own vocabulary. In no other season would you usually use words like eggnog or mistletoe. While the etymology of Christmas might be fairly guessable, or even well-known, there are lots of terms that take unexpected twists and turns.

My gift to you all is to unwrap many festive words we merrily throw into conversations around Christmas.

Christmas

The word we use today for the holiday is actually a fairly new one. The English term "Christmas" comes from the combination of the words "mass" and "Christ,".

‘Christmas’ came into English shortly after the Norman conquest, and grew out of the festival then referred to as ‘Christ’s mass’: the Christian tradition of taking holy communion/mass on the saint’s day dedicated to Jesus Christ. The -mas part exists in similar festivals such as Michaelmas and Candlemas, although these may be less familiar to non-Christians.

The word Christ comes from the Greek word "Christos" which comes from the Hebrew meaning "Messiah." And the Messiah, in Judaism, is the name of the expected king meant to deliver the Jewish nation.

Xmas

A bit like marmite, the use of xmas is liked and disliked in almost equal measure. Despite popular beliefs, the abbreviation isn’t a modern invention. It goes back to the 16th century.

Xmas’ does have a religious backstory, and it isn’t a modern abbreviation.

The letter “X” in “Xmas” stems back to the Greek letter “Chi”, which is the first letter of the Greek word “Christos” (Χριστός), meaning “Christ” . The use of “X” as an abbreviation for “Christ” dates back to the early days of Christianity, when the Greek letter “Chi” was used as a symbol for Jesus Christ .

Bauble

It’s an old French word ‘beaubelet’ for a child’s toy, trinket, or plaything. It dates back to around the 14th century in English, and was used then to talk about any showy but valueless ornament.

In the years that followed, bauble also came to be used for the baton carried by court jesters (who were nicknamed bauble-bearers in Tudor England) and foolish people; to ‘give the bauble’ meant to make fun of someone in 17th century English.

Eggnog

A drink consisting of rum, brandy, or other alcohol mixed with beaten egg, milk, and sugar. While today eggnog doesn’t always include alcohol, it certainly did when the word was first used in the United States in mid-1700s.

The nog bit of the odd six letter word ‘eggnog’ is a word for strong beer. It’s origins live in Norfolk with a particular ale of beer they brewed there.

Before the 1600s, nobody’s too sure where nog came from. But one plausible explanation is that it comes from an even older Scots word, nugg, for beer warmed by having a red-hot poker placed into it. If so, then your Christmas eggnog can probably be traced back to an old Norwegian word, knagg, for a metal peg or spur.

The egg in eggnog speaks for itself.

It’s a fun one say ‘eggnog’.

Rudolph

Rudolph is of course the most famous of all of Santa’s reindeer. The name actually means ‘famous wolf’ and would have been bestowed on the fiercest and most audacious of warriors.

The ‘rein’ in reindeer happens to be an old Germanic word that means horn.

Santa Claus

The name Santa comes from good old Saint Nicholas, the saint patron of Children. (You probably knew that.)

As a young man who had lost both his parents, he decided to give away his inheritance to help the poor and later became a clergyman. The tradition of giving presents to emulate him became popular in Northern Europe until the 1500s, thanks to his reputation for performing miracles.

Dutch settlers, who had nicknamed him Sinterklaas, carried the name to the USA, where the word slowly turned into Santa Claus.

Wassail

Wassail is a merry word used to toast someone or spend a good time drinking with them. As a noun, wassail can refer to a friendly toast, drunken merriment, or a drink drunk during festive times like Christmas. Wassailing is a British custom of visiting neighbours and wishing them good fortune or spreading cheer with songs in return for food and drink.

The practice of Christmas caroling comes from wassailing.

The custom of wassailing is very old and the word wassail is recorded around the late 1100s. It comes through the Middle English was-hail, meaning “to be in good health.”

Tinsel

You don’t see it so much now. But my childhood was filled with the stuff. (One year our living room was filled with those hanging foil decorations too.)

It comes from a French word ‘étincelle’ meaning “sparkle” or “spark.” Tinsel as we know it today dates from the late 1500s, and took its name from the sparkling silvery or golden threads that made tinsel fabric so shiny.

Crumping

The sound you make when walking over semi-frozen snow; ‘crumping over the hills’ or ‘he crumped sadly down the garden’.

Turkey

The first birds ever known as turkeys in English were African guinea fowl, which were so-named as they were imported to Europe dinner tables via Turkey.

When the first Europeans came across wild turkeys in North America in the early 1500s, however, they wrongly assumed that they were relatives of the guinea fowl they knew from back home, and so they too came to be known as turkeys.

English isn’t the only language to have geographically misnamed the turkey: In French it is called dinde (from poule d’inde, or “Indian chicken”). in Portuguese it is the peru (because the birds were mistakenly thought to come from South America); and in Malaysia it is called the ayam belanda or “Dutch chicken” (because the birds were originally introduced by Dutch settlers).

Throwing in a turkey curveball, bubbly-jock is a Scottish word for a male turkey. Bubbly being the cry of a turkey, and jock is an old word for clown. Turkeycook is also used and has a second meaning, pompous or self-important person.

Creche

Not a festive word you’ll shout across the Christmas table, or when watching the Queen’s/King’s speech, but it has links to the nativity. Crèche is defined as “representation of the Nativity” by Merriam-Webster.

Creche, cratch, and crache (all forms of the same word) referred to a trough from where animals eat. In case you’re not up to speed with the biblical story, this is where baby Jesus was first laid to rest after his birth, as the scene took place in a stable.

Interestingly, the feeding container was eventually named manger, which is its current meaning in English. In its original French, manger however means to eat. So, we use: a) the French word for cradle to speak about the Nativity and b) the French term for eating to refer to a feeding box for animals.

Quaaltagh

A word borrowed from the Manx dialect from the Isle of Man, a Quaaltagh is the first person to enter your house on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day morning. They were believed to have a bearing on the luck that the household would see for the coming year, and often if somebody suspected that they’d be the Quaaltagh wherever they were visiting, would take a gift of whiskey or coal with them to bring goodwill to the house for the next season.

Noel

Noel is well-known as the French term for Christmas, but its origins go back to concepts of the birth of the church, and the word is actually related to the term nativity.

The given name would originally have been used exclusively for children born on or around Christmas, which is not the case for Noels Gallagher and Fielding, but it is for Noels Edmonds and Coward.

When first introduced to English in the medieval period, it was mostly used as an exclamation of joy, much as it is in many Christmas carols.

Carol

The term carol also comes from French, and originally referred to a celebratory dance in the early 1300s. it wasn’t used to refer to a Christmas hymn until some 200 years later.

Mistletoe

Its etymology is more fun than the somewhat misogynistic origins of the cultural tradition, which saw any woman unwittingly standing beneath a mistletoe sprig obligated to kiss any man so inclined, or else she would suffer great misfortune. The plant was originally known simply as mistle, with the aforementioned ‘sprig’ being the original meaning of the -toe which became commonly appended to the word.

Hogamadog

Did you ever roll a snowball through a field of snow and it slowly grew bigger and bigger? Well, if you did, you might be pleased to learn the action has a name – hogamadog. According to the English Dialect Dictionary. 9 times out of 10 a hogamadog is used as the body of a snowman. Or a lethal giant snowball for folk you don’t like.

(A regular old snowball can also be a winter apple.)

Greetnigs

This one has only taken off with my closest friends and family. Dip into my tale of Christmas past.

That's a wrap.

Leigh James (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.

You can drop me a message, or scribble an email to me.

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Photo credit – Charlota Blunarova | Unsplash