Tuesday, 22 December 2015 23:30

On the Origin of Christmas Words

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Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed most commonly on December 25th as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. Etymologically, Christmas is a compound word originating in the term Christ’s Mass. It is derived from Old English Crīstesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038, followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131. Crīst is from Greek Khrīstos, a translation of Hebrew Māšîa, Messiah meaning “anointed”, and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist.

A representative element of Christmas is the Christmas tree. Many legends and old traditions concerning the Christmas tree date back to very ancient times, but historical documentation of its origins as the tree we know and decorate today only appeared in recent centuries. The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany (where it is today called Weihnachtsbaum or Christbaum) with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly 15th century, when devout Danish Christians brought decorated trees into their homes and danced around them. It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century, at first among the upper classes.

The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, or other foods. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles which were ultimately replaced by Christmas lights after the advent of electrification. The word tree is derived from Old English trēo, trēow ‎(“tree, wood, timber, beam, log, stake, stick, grove, cross, rood”), from Proto-Germanic trewą ‎(“tree, wood”).

Santa Claus is a figure with historical origins who, in many Western cultures, brings gifts to the homes of good children on 24 December, the night before Christmas Day. The origin of Santa Claus depends on which country's story you choose to adopt. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch words Sinter Klaas, which is what they call their favourite saint, St. Nicholas. The name Santa Claus appeared for the first time in the New York Gazette (1773), as St. A. Claus. This name was taken from dialectal Dutch (Sante Klaas).

Santa Claus's reindeer form an imaginary team of flying reindeer traditionally held to pull the sleigh of Santa Claus and help him deliver Christmas gifts. The word reindeer is a compound, although it was borrowed into English from Scandinavian languages (e.g., Old Norse hreindýri). The first part refers to the animal itself, but is of very uncertain origin; one possibility is that it could come from an Indo-European root referring to the creature’s spectacular antlers: *ker-, “horn”, source of the very same word. The second part is indeed related to deer, originally any four-legged beast, which may come from an Indo-European root for breath, thus “living.”

He might be the most famous of Santa’s reindeer, but the name Rudolph actually means “famous wolf”, and would once have been an epithet bestowed on the fiercest or most audacious of warriors. Perhaps it is the most famous red-nosed reindeer, whose etymological fame might just send it skyward. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf (”fame-wolf”). The name is a compound, joining hruod (”fame”)and a Germanic base giving us wolf.

A Christmascarol(also called a Noël, from the French word meaning "Christmas") is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas, and which is traditionally sung on Christmas itself or during the surrounding holiday season. The first known Christmas hymns may be traced to fourth century Rome. This carol (the given name is unrelated) could be from the same Greek khoraules, a “flute player” that accompanied a chorus. Indeed, the Greek joins khoros (“chorus”) and autos (“reed”).

Most people have heard of mistletoe, particularly at Christmas time, and there are lots of legends and traditions surrounding mistletoe, the most well-known and popular being the kissing one. It is believed that kissing under the mistletoe would lead to marriage. In ancient times the Druids believed that mistletoe would bring good luck and health. The -toe of mistletoe is an Old English word for “twig,” but the mistle- part is much more puzzling. Originally, the mistletoe plant was just called mistel, which in Old English was also used as a word for birdlime, a sticky substance pasted onto the branches of trees to trap birds.

Dating from the early 1500s, tinsel was originally the name of an iridescent fabric interwoven with gold- or silver-colored thread that took its name from a French word, étincelle, meaning “sparkle” or “spark.” Tinsel as we know it today dates back to the 17th century, and took its name from the sparkling silvery or golden threads that made tinsel fabric so shiny. Also, tinsel was used for adorning sculptures rather than Christmas trees. It was added to Christmas trees to enhance the flickering of the candles on the tree. Tinsel was equally used to represent the starry sky over a Nativity scene.

And finally, merry. The word is an old one, appearing as merge in Old English, pronounced in two syllables and originally meaning “causing pleasure.” In spite of its age, merry ultimately goes back to an Indo-European root for “short”. The root also yields the English mirth and brief, connected to pleasure via the sense of a pastime, something that “shortens the time,” hence is “entertaining” and “pleasing.” In fact, Christmas is a notable exception to the common happy-greetings, with the dominant descriptor being merry. We wish our friends a Merry Christmas, but a Happy New Year. Is there any difference? However, not everyone’s Christmas is merry. Happy Christmas has its partisans too, but they are geographically restricted. According to the Oxford English Corpus, Irish Christmases are far more happy than merry. A significant minority of British Christmases are also happy, but American and Australian Christmases aren’t very happy at all. These geographic distinctions were not always so strong. Merry Christmas is hardly a newcomer. It is actually the earlier of the two phrases by more than a century. In 1534, it is attested in the exceptionally un-jovial environs of the Tower of London, in a letter from the condemned bishop John Fisher to Henry VIII’s trusted minister Thomas Cromwell.

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus%27s_reindeer
http://www.ewtn.com/library/chistory/xmastree.htm
http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/Christmas_TheRealStory.htm
http://mentalfloss.com/article/60832/origins-12-christmas-words
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus
http://www.lone-star.net/mall/main-areas/xmas-santa-origin2.htm

 

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