Ten Christmas Terms Explained

Do you know where all ten of these Christmas terms came from?

(This essay also appears in my book Whatever Happened to English? – available on Amazon.)

The Christmas season is “the most wonderful time of the year” for many of us. Just think of the many words we associate only with Christmas. The following ten words are among them.

Advent Candles_31. Advent – Advent is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival” or “the coming.” By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I had instituted in the Roman church the practice of conducting a special mass on each of the four Sundays leading up to “the coming” of the Christ-child. Similar to Lent, the season of Advent included fasting and penitence followed by a time of celebration. Eventually, the penitential nature of Advent gave way exclusively to the celebratory nature. Today, Advent is still celebrated in many churches, with each Sunday featuring a different theme, such as the prophecies of Jesus’ birth, the Annunciation to Mary, the visitation of the angels and shepherds, and the gifts of the wise men—with a candle lit for each theme.

Carol in hymnal2. Carol – Singing Christmas carols in church or outside of people’s homes is a favorite tradition of many. A term in use since the 14th century, a carol is typically a joyful religious song, slightly less formal than a hymn, and often sung outside the four walls of the church. Carols today are closely identified with the celebration of Christ’s birth. The word has been used in verb form since the 14th century as well—“Here we come a caroling…”

wise-men3. Wise Men (or magi – from Greek magoi – μάγοι) – The King James Version refers to the magi as “wise men.” The Greek word, magoi, refers to the unnumbered and unnamed pagan astrologers who, as reported in Matthew’s Gospel, arrived “from the east”—probably Persia or Babylonia—to pay homage to the baby Jesus, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As influential men of learning, they were certainly “wise men,” and thus the translation. Today, the magi are immortalized in Nativity scenes and in carols, such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Although the legend that the magi were kings has been around since the fifth century, there is no biblical or other convincing evidence to substantiate it.

4. Gay (as in “don we now our gay apparel” and “make the yuletide gay”) – Young people today may not know that “gay” once had nothing to do with sexual orientation. It’s original meaning was “lively” or “brightly colored,” and that was predominantly how it was used until the 1970s. Although Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary still lists the older definition as the primary one, the American Heritage Dictionary, along with most current usage guides, lists the newer meaning as primary. But when we sing “Deck the halls with boughs of holly . . . don we now our gay apparel,” we are using the older meaning.

Yule Log5. Yule (yule log and yuletide) – This term is rooted in the ancient twelve-day Norse feast of “Midwinter.” As Christianity began to take over the Scandinavian region in the sixth and seventh centuries, it infused new meaning in the Norse feast and soon the festival celebrating Christ’s birth was called simply Jul (Yule in English). The meaning of the word is unclear. But when we hear “yule log” and “yuletide” we can mentally substitute “Christmas log” and “Christmastide.”

6. Twelve Days of Christmas – The twelve days of Christmas are December 25 (Christmas day) through January 6 (Epiphany). If you count the days, you will come up with 13. The best information I could uncover is that the first day, Christmas, is often not counted in the twelve days, so by the time we get to January 6, that day is considered Day Twelve. However the counting is done, the Twelve Days has been recognized by many Christians as a part of the celebration of Christ’s birth—and his baptism (Epiphany)—for centuries. The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which has been around for centuries in one form or another, features a series of silly gifts given to one’s “true love” over that twelve-day span. A mathematics professor noted in a 1959 journal article that if one adds up all the gifts given over the twelve days, the total is 364, with the speculation that the lover has provided his or her beloved with a gift for each day of the upcoming year. On the 365th day—Christmas day—Christ himself is the greatest gift of all. True story? Who knows, but the speculation is interesting.

7. Calling birds – While on the topic of the Twelve Days of Christmas, on day four the true love gives “four calling birds.” According to reliable historical sources, the lyric was originally “four colly birds,” which derives from the Old English word col, or coal. A “colly bird,” then was a black-colored bird, or a blackbird. In Medieval times, blackbirds (and other kinds of birds, like French hens, turtle doves, and partridges) were considered a tasty delicacy to be baked into a pie. Yum![1]

christmas-nativity-manger8. Nativity – This word has its origins in the Latin nativus—birth. In English it is usually capitalized and preceded by the definite article—The Nativity—and refers to the birth of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ until the middle of the fourth century, and then it was known as the Feast of the Nativity.[2]

9. Christmas – The Roman church celebrated Christ’s birth (Advent, The Nativity) with a special midnight mass for centuries before it was first known in England as Christes maesse (or Christ’s mass) in the eleventh century—probably around 1050 A.D. Eventually, it became simply Christmas. Within a hundred years, we find evidence of Christmas being spelled with an X (Xmas). Why?

10. Xmas – When I was a young boy, my mother, a devout Christian woman, made it clear to me that Christmas should never be spelled Xmas because, according to her understanding, X indicated an unknown quantity (as in algebraic equations). It was therefore borderline blasphemy to refer to Jesus Christ as an “unknown.” Pagans might use Xmas, but not Christians. Although I learned a different way to understand Xmas when I grew up—and discovered it wasn’t as sinister as my mother believed it to be—I still don’t spell it that way. Here’s the background: In the sixteenth century, Englishmen who had studied Greek learned that, in that language, Christ is spelled Χρίστος (Christos)[3] . Some of them started using the first letter, Χ (or chipronounced kye), as shorthand for Christ. From there, it was a short step for Christmas to become Xmas. In the 20th century, advertisers and sign-makers discovered that Xmas was a nice, short, space-saving abbreviation of Christmas, and so it entered popular culture.

Dictionaries and usage guides generally advise pronouncing Xmas as Christmas (not ecksmas), but I can’t help it—when I see Xmas, in my head I hear ecksmas. In formal writing we should avoid this abbreviated form. And while I don’t attribute sinister motives to those who use it informally, I will never be able to bring myself to use “Xmas,” because it appears—at least appears—to remove Christ from Christmas.[4]

Merry Christmas to all!

[1] Or yuck, depending on one’s tastes.

[2] I’m tremendously condensing this account and leaving out details, such as how the Western church settled on December 25 as the day of Christ’s birth and how and when the first feasts of the Nativity began.

[3] Keep in mind that the New Testament was originally written in Greek.

[4] Sources used for this article: Kelly, Joseph F. The Origins of Christmas. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.; Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Dover Publications, 1976 reprint of original 1912 edition; Grant, Leigh. Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995; Riker, William H. A Note on Numerology in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 72 (Oct-Dec, 1959), 348; Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed. Oxford: University Press, 2016.

© Copyright 2016, 2018, 2021 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

This essay also appears in my book Whatever Happened to English? – available on Amazon.







Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, guitar picker, classical music aficionado, classic rock 'n' roll and movie buff, sinner, saint, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning how to make the world a better place--grammatically, anyway.

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