From Advent to Yuletide: What Christmas words really mean

We take many Christmas words and traditions for granted. But do we really know what they mean? Kel Richards, broadcaster and word guru, sheds some light on common Christmas words.* 

Advent

‘Advent’ comes from a Latin source word meaning ‘arrival’ and is another name for the Christmas season. The word refers to the arrival of the Creator God on the planet (in the form of a human baby). This is why those little calendars with flaps are called ‘Advent calendars’ and why Christmas is sometimes called the ‘Advent season’. 

Boxing Day

This odd name for 26 December comes from an old English tradition in which a box containing a gift was handed out to servants or to the needy. The tradition required that the village squire and his family would, on the day after Christmas, box up the leftover Christmas food and goodies, and distribute these among the village poor.  

Carol

‘Carol’ came into English in the 14th century from an old French word meaning ‘a joyful song’. In fact, it meant a song so bright and joyful that you could dance to it. Originally, and up until about the 16th century, lots of different songs were called carols. But over more recent centuries it slowly became more specialised, and today only songs that celebrate Christmas are called carols.  

Christmas

The word ‘Christmas’ first appears in something called the Old English Chronicle almost a thousand years ago (in the year 1123 to be precise). It comes from the Late Old English expression Cristes mæsse. And this Old English word mæsse comes from a Latin word missa which dates even further back – way back to the fourth century (and from which we get our familiar English word ‘dismissal’).  

Back in those days, church services were in Latin, which was the language of the ordinary people of the Roman Empire at the time. They ended with this particular Latin word – basically meaning “church is over, you are dismissed” – although it was meant rather more politely than that.  

Back when the word ‘Christmas’ was coined a thousand or so years ago, it literally meant ‘Christ’s church service’.

And because that was the last word in the church service, it became the name for church services. So, Latin missa (in Old English mæsse) was the ancient word for a church service.  

In other words, back when the word ‘Christmas’ was coined a thousand or so years ago, it literally meant ‘Christ’s church service’ – the church service celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.  

So, when you pop into church at Christmas, what you’re doing is keeping a bit of history alive. 

Father Christmas

The potbellied, jolly image of Father Christmas seems to have been invented by American cartoonist Thomas Nast in a series of drawings he did for Harper’s Weekly over more than 20 years, beginning in 1863. He said that he based his drawings on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ (see ‘Santa Claus’). 

However, the title ‘Father Christmas’ is a good deal older than Nast’s drawings and may have begun as a Christmas variation on ‘Father Time’ – pictured as a bearded old man who sees out the old year at the end of each December.  

Gift

The habit of exchanging gifts at Christmas can be traced back to the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus and the gifts they brought him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

Nativity

‘Nativity’ is a word that means ‘birth’. It’s used these days to mean ‘the birth of Jesus Christ’. The word came into English from Old French back in the 12th century (blame William the Conqueror and his French-speaking Normans for that).  

And behind the Old French word was a Latin word for ‘birth’ from which we get our familiar word ‘native’ – because ‘native’ refers to your birth (if you were born in Australia, then you’re a ‘native’ of Australia). 

Santa Claus

Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Lycia (modern Turkey) sometime before AD 350. Little is known of his life, but he was associated with kindness to children. For this reason, Saint Nicholas’ Day (6 December) became the traditional day for giving gifts to children in the Netherlands.  

Santa Claus is merely an adaption of Sinter Klaas, the Dutch version of the name ‘Saint Nicholas’.  

This custom was taken to America by early Dutch settlers, and Santa Claus is merely an adaption of Sinter Klaas, the Dutch version of the name ‘Saint Nicholas’.  

He was popularised by a poem called ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore, published in New York in 1823 – the one that begins with the famous line, “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house …”. 

Wise men

Some months after his birth, the infant Jesus was visited by a group of wise men from the East. This expression translates the word ‘magi’, meaning mathematicians, astronomers and/or astrologers –roughly the ancient equivalent of scientists.  

They were non-Jews or Gentiles, and their visit symbolises the fact that the arrival of Jesus was good news for all people, everywhere – not just the people of Israel.  

The exact number of these visitors is not given in the Bible, but it’s often assumed there were three of them because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, myrrh).  

Yuletide

‘Yule’ appears to come from an Old English word – possibly from an Old Anglican name for the December and January period. This changed over time, and by the tenth century ‘Yule’ was being used for Christmas Day and for Christmas festivities in general. Hence, the log that burnt in the fireplace on Christmas Day was the ‘Yule log’ 

*This article was adapted with permission from Christmas Words Unwrapped by Kel Richards. 

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