An Etymological Christmas
An Etymological Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly (fa la la la la, la la la la)

And for us that means etymology (fa la la la la, la la la)

Christmas Day will soon be upon us, so what better way to celebrate than investigating the origins of some festive words? What? Wine, food and presents? Well, sure, but we’re proofreaders, and we like a side-helping of lexicology with our Christmas feast.

To be specific, we’re looking some of the many words for Christmas (and Santa), along with where these terms come from. Because etymology is the gift that keeps on giving.

Christmas, Noel and Yuletide

Although it has become a secular celebration of over-consumption in recent times, the origins of Christmas as a religious festival are very obvious if you think about the word ‘Christmas’ for a moment: ‘Christ’ (i.e. Jesus) + ‘mass’ (i.e. the Christian Eucharist).

Apparently, the Pope endorsed Christmas trees at some point. (Photo: Marburg79/wikimedia)
It seems the Pope endorsed Christmas trees at some point.
(Photo: Marburg79/wikimedia)

This is, of course, because Christmas is when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. This event is reflected more literally in another word for Christmas, ‘Noël’, which comes from the Latin verb ‘nasci’ (via the Old French nael), which means ‘to be born’.

It’s also why we refer to school plays about Mary and Joseph’s stable-based adventure as ‘the Nativity’, since this term also has roots in Old French (nativité, meaning ‘birth’).

That's the one.
That’s the one.

However, the many variations of ‘Christmas’ that have since emerged, including ‘Xmas’, ‘Chrimbo’ and ‘Crimble’, possibly reflect the way that religious reverence has declined a little over the years.

The only common word for ‘Christmas’ that doesn’t have roots in Christianity is ‘yule’ (or ‘yuletide’), which comes from the Old Norse Jól, a heathen midwinter festival.

The Many Names of Father Christmas

It’s not very clear what the modern version of Father Christmas has to do with the birth of Jesus: a large bearded man from the North Pole in a bright red suit would certainly have stood out in Biblical-era Bethlehem, so we assume he’d have been mentioned if he was here.

Three wise men and one jolly dude in a sleigh?
Three wise men and one jolly dude in a sleigh?

Nevertheless, there is a religious connection, since another name for Father Christmas is St Nick. This is a reference to St Nicholas, a third-century Greek bishop and the patron saint of children.

The story of St Nick evolved across time until he became Sinterklaas, a mythical Dutch figure who distributes gifts to well-behaved children. When Dutch settlers arrived in America, they took Sinterklaas with them, eventually giving rise to the ‘Santa Claus’ we know and love today.

The original St Nick was perhaps a little less jolly.
The original St Nick was a little less jolly.

Not everyone celebrates Christmas with Santa, though: in Scandinavian countries, gifts are delivered by tomte or nisse, a type of gnome, who are accompanied by Julbocken (or ‘the Yule goat’).

Oddly, this seems more plausible than an obese man squeezing down chimneys.
Oddly, this seems more plausible than an obese man squeezing down chimneys.

Whether you choose to believe in Jesus, Santa or magical gnomes, though, we hope you’ve enjoyed today’s blogpost, and we wish you all a very merry Christmas indeed!

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