Christmas Word Origins

Christmas is from the Old English words Cristes moesse, 'the mass or festival of Christ'. The first celebration took place in Rome about the middle of the fourth century. The exact date of the Nativity is not known, but even in pre-Christian times the period from December 25 to January 6 — now known as "The Twelve Days of Christmas" — was considered a special time of year. The abbreviation Xmas, thought as sacrilegious by some, is entirely appropriate. The letter X (chi) is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ.

Reindeer is actually redundant. The root rein is Scandinavian for 'reindeer', so reindeer translates to 'reindeer deer'. It came to English from Old Norse hreindyri.

Mistletoe is thought to be based on a German word for bird excrement (mix) from the fact that the plant is propagated in it, though there is also a theory that the term derived from another German word (mash) which refers to the stickiness of the berries. It is combined with an Old English word (toe) meaning 'twig'. This shrub usually grows on broad-leaved trees like apple, lime, and poplar.

Christmas carol is a term which originally referred to a non-religious ring dance accompanied by singing. Eventually it came to mean a merry song with a tune that could be danced to. The Italian friars who lived with St. Francis of Assisi were the first to compose these songs, c. 1410. Since the nineteenth century, carols have been sung in place of hymns in most churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

St. Nicholas was not only wealthy but modest, and he liked to help people in need without drawing attention to himself. Poor families would often find a gold piece or well-filled purse without knowing where it had come from. His American successor, Santa Claus, carried on the tradition.

Native to Central America, the red and green poinsettia has been a symbol of Christmas in the United States since the 1820s when it was first shipped to North America by Joel Poinsett, the American minister to Mexico.

Wassail comes from the Middle English waes haeil (c. 1205), which means 'be in good health' or 'be fortunate'. Wassailing was the Old English custom of toasting the holiday and each other's health. Wassail is also the name of the spiced apple beverage used in such toasting; it has been drunk since around 1300.

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