At Christmas time, do you ever hear something and think, what in the world does that actually mean? We seem to have gone ear-numb to a lot of the Christmas words and phrases we hear every year.
So now I’m going to unpick a few of them and find out what linguistic secrets lie behind all that glitter and sparkle…
Are you harking to me?
Yes, the word we only ever really hear at Christmas, when the carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing blares in shopping centres, churches and nativity plays, actually means “listen”. It’s an archaic word that dates from about 1200 and was used to call attention.
Today, Kriss Kringle is synonymous with Santa Claus (itself an American corruption of Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas). If you remember the movie, The Santa Clause, Kriss Kringle is one of the many names Tim Allen’s Santa reels off when he’s asked by the police to identify himself. And in A Miracle on 34th Street, a man called Kris Kringle turns out to be the real Santa.
Funny, that, because Kriss or Kris Kingle actually means “Baby Jesus”! It’s nothing to do with the figure of Santa or Saint Nicholas. Kriss Kringle originates in the early 1800s from the German “Christkindlein”, which means “Christ child”.
We’ve all heard of Yule logs and Yuletide. Most of us consider Yule as being synonymous with Christmas. But like many Christmas traditions, its origins are nothing to do with the birth of Christ.
Most experts agree that the word “Yule” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “hwéol”, meaning “wheel”, and probably has something to do with the sun moving through certain “wheeling points”—basically special dates in the calendar. As many people know, December 25th was an important pagan sun festival before it became Jesus’s birthday. In addition, Odin—chief of the Norse gods—was called “Yule-father” because of his strong associations with the sun.
On the day after Christmas Day, no, it’s not customary to watch boxing matches, or go out and have punch-ups. In fact, “Boxing Day” has three distinct origin stories, which probably all contributed to what is now a public holiday.
In Britain, going back as far as the late 1600s, postmen and other tradesmen would expect to receive ‘Christmas boxes’ on the first weekday after Christmas. These would contain money or a gift, as thanks for good service throughout the year.
An even older English tradition was to do with servants being allowed to visit their families on the day after Christmas as a thank you for waiting on their employers on Christmas Day. The employers would give the servants a ‘Christmas box’ filled with gifts, bonuses or leftover food.
And there’s a European tradition, too, dating back to the Middle Ages. This concerned another type of ‘Christmas box’. This box was placed in churches and used to collect donations for the poor during Christmas services. On the day after Christmas, the contents of the Christmas box were distributed to those in need.
Funnily enough, lots of people think that “Xmas” is a modern attempt by atheists to remove the religious tradition from Christmas—essentially taking the “Christ” out of Christmas.
But as a matter of fact, the “X” is actually a Greek letter and the first letter of the Greek word “Χριστός”, which in English means “Christ”!
And it’s not modern either. The words “Xres mæsse”, meaning “Christmas”, appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and date from about 1100.
So there you have it. A handful of weird and wonderful festive words with origins that are sometimes quirky, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes not festive at all. That just leaves me to say merry Christmas to all my clients past, present and future!
Here’s to 2017!