Unwrapping the History of Yuletide Language
Will I End Up on the Naughty List for Using Xmas?
Have you ever heard anybody say, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? The familiar adage is used by some to criticize the way terms like Xmas supposedly erase the holiday’s Christian character. However, Xmas is like many other Christmas terms in having a much longer and more complicated story than one might imagine, calling back to pasts both real and imagined.
The form Xmas is actually quite old: the replacement of Christ with X is not just a recent abbreviation lazily scrawled on cardboard boxes full of string lights. The X actually represents the letter chi in the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός, meaning “the anointed one”). The variation Xtemmas has been used since at least the 16th century (preserving the t in Christ), and a similar form is even attested as far back as Middle English in Xpesmesse (preserving the r sound ρ in Χριστός).1
Even so, many modern style guides warn against using the abbreviation Xmas due to the connotations it has unfortunately acquired. Because of its convenience, it is often used in commercials and other publications, which probably adds to its reputation as a shallow innovation. Our opinion is that while it is out of place in more formal contexts, it is a perfectly acceptable abbreviation on things like greeting cards (For more on Xmas, see our Word Stories investigation from January 2020).
The Words of Christmas Past and Present
Conversely, several terms used around Christmastime, such as merry, wassailing, and tidings, preserve an apparent archaic quality. Let’s examine why words with an old-time ring are so welcome during the festive season.
As the case of Xmas shows, we’re often unaware of the origins of particular celebrations and their associated language. As a culture, we’re not alone in our uncertainty. The Roman poet Ovid once tried to write an organized, exhaustive account of Rome’s calendar events, their origins, and all the special old words associated with them. The information collected in his monumental work Fasti (“Festivals”, published in 8 CE) turned out to be infamously unclear and contradictory. At one point, even Ovid seems to give up: “Opinions vary, once again, on the origins of this month’s name. You can choose one for yourself that pleases you.” Ovid’s book was a huge success, which shows that the point was not pinning down the facticity of every historical detail, but honouring the memory of his culture’s gods and ancestors.
Today, many festive expressions serve to anchor our social experience in a similar way, even when we’re not sure how or why such expressions actually entered our seasonal lexicon. Several “Christmas” terms actually predate Christmas itself. For example, you’d never be criticized for “taking the Christ out of Christmas” by saying Yuletide, but the origins of this term actually have little to do with Christ or even Christian tradition as we know it.
The word Yule actually comes from Old English geol or geola, itself from Norse jol, the name for a heathen feast held around midwinter.2 Jol is another name for Odin, a Norse god. Traditionally, around midwinter, festivals were held involving feasting, merriment and often large bonfires. As the European population converted to Christianity, people conserved many of their familiar and favourite traditions, helping us to keep this Norse word in our lexicon. Yule eventually combined with -tide (meaning a moment in time) to create the Yuletide we know today.3
Another Christmassy word that comes from the Old Norse jol is jolly, although it took a different route into English. As Norse came into contact with Gallo-Roman when Vikings invaded Normandy, jol had the chance to pick up the suffix -if from this predecessor of French, which means “of” or “pertaining to”. -If then entered English with the Norman Conquest of 1066, eventually giving us the suffix -ly after several phonetic transformations. This means that the etymological meaning of jolly is literally “of Yule”. Think of that the next time you hear the phrase “jolly Saint Nick”!
These aren’t the only bits of old language we bring out with the Christmas ornaments; many other expressions and words have been preserved through our love of tradition. When was the last time you used merry outside of the Christmas season? This word can actually be traced all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, where it meant short or brief.4 Its association with pleasure probably comes from the fact that pleasurable activities can make time pass more quickly. In the Middle Ages, it could be used to describe almost anything, from pleasant voices to fine food. Today, however, it’s a word we use almost exclusively to describe the Christmas season.
And Christmas carols, virtually unavoidable in December if you turn on the radio, visit a shopping mall or attend a school concert, preserve many terms within the collective consciousness that might otherwise have been forgotten—think of hark in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and wassailing in “Here We Come A-wassailing”, songs dating from at least the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.
Like the Romans before us, we use language to create a sense of belonging and nostalgia around our holidays. Yule might have died out if it hadn’t been revived by writers in the 19th century to refer to the Christmas of “Merrie England”.2 (Notice the use of merry, likely meaning “bygone”!) The first direct reference to a Yule log—a log of wood for the Christmas Eve hearth, or a Christmas cake in the shape of one—is similarly attested in the 17th century, long after the Norse winter festivals stopped being celebrated.
Even the histories of our holiday words, then, have histories—our ancestors, too, felt the attraction of sentimentality in festive seasons. And after all, what is cozier than the glow of a golden past in the bleak midwinter?
“Criste-mas (se n.” In Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952–2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000–2018. Retrieved October 11, 2022. ↩
“Tide.” In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved October 11, 2022. ↩
“Merry.” In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved October 11, 2022. ↩
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