Skip to content

The word Christmas came into English shortly after the Norman conquest, and grew out of the festival then referred to as ‘Christ’s mass’: the Christian tradition of taking holy communion/ mass on the saint’s day dedicated to Jesus Christ. The -mas morpheme exists in similar festivals such as Michaelmas and Candlemas, although these may be less familiar to non-Christians.

While this etymology might be fairly guessable, or even well-known, there are lots of terms synonymous with Christmas which, when we examine their origins, provide interesting insights into our festive traditions.

YULE enjoy Christmas much more if you NOEL about the origins of Christmas words!

Two alternative terms for the festive period are Yule and Noel, with the former dating back 3000 years to an old Germanic term probably referring to the period spanning December and January. This is the earliest recorded meaning of the term in English, although in Old Norse, it referred to a 12-day heathen festival. It is first recorded as a term for Christmas time in the Old English of the ninth century, and often bears the suffix -tide, which originally simply referred to a period of time.

Noel is well-known as the French term for Christmas, but its origins go back to concepts of the birth of the church, and the word is actually related to the English adjective natal and another Christmas term: nativity. The given name would originally have been used exclusively for children born on or around Christmas, which is not the case for Noels Gallagher and Fielding, but it is for Noels Edmonds and Coward! When first introduced to English in the medieval period, it was mostly used as an exclamation of joy, much as it is in many Christmas carols.

The term carol also comes from French, and originally referred to a dance when first recorded in the English of the early 1300s; it was not used to refer to a Christmas hymn until some 200 years later. Mistletoe’s etymology is more fun than the somewhat misogynistic origins of the cultural tradition, which saw any woman unwittingly standing beneath a mistletoe sprig obligated to kiss any man so inclined, or else she would suffer great misfortune. The plant was originally known simply as mistle, with the aforementioned ‘sprig’ being the original meaning of the -toe which became commonly appended to the word.

Elsewhere, the day after Christmas became commonly known as boxing day, not through any link with post-festive fisticuffs, but rather due to a Victorian tradition of masters supplying postmen, servants and errand boys with a festive tip wrapped up in a Christmas box.

The chap with the beard was first recorded as being referred to as Father Christmas in 1646, and was more of a spiritual personification (similar to Mother Nature or Old Father Time) than an actual human figure. The OED notes that this persona gradually became synonymous with Santa Claus, a Dutch-borrowed derivative of Saint Nicholas which entered English more than a century later. As the patron saint of children, Saint Nick’s day is technically the 6th December, and the Dutch custom of giving gifts to children on this day is considered the true origin of the secular icon of the gift-giving bearded bloke (Santa, not Noel Edmonds).

Everyone knows that the true meaning of Christmas is being able to show off all your wonderful new-found knowledge to your nearest and dearest while sharing a festive dinner. This year, you can impress your friends and family with an etymological journey into Christmas past… it might make up for any disappointing Christmas presents you might have! NOEL!!


Share this content

Visit Us

We offer different opportunities for you to visit us throughout the year