Christmastime is full of tradition. We look forward to the same foods each year. We bring out ornaments from years past and trim the tree. We listen to carols that have been sung for hundreds of years. Many of us send cards to our friends and family, just like the Victorians did.
We also give some of the oldest words in the English language their seasonal airing.
The word Christmas itself is a relatively recent introduction, dating “only” from 1123. Its etymology is clear: Christmas is “Christ’s Mass.” It was first recorded as “Xpmes,” the X and p being chi and rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. From the Middle Ages on, writers used the even shorter Xmas when they needed to save space, just as they wrote Xn for “Christian” and Xpher for “Christopher.”
Before Christmas, there was Yule. This is a very old word, with roots in Proto-Germanic, a language that developed in Europe between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. Yule first referred to a pagan festival that commemorated the solstice, seen as the victory of light over darkness. When Christianity came to England, Yule was easily associated with the birth of “the light of the world,” Jesus Christ (John 8:12, King James Version).
Today, most people don’t bother with a yule log, a huge piece of wood that was supposed to burn for all 12 days of Christmas, but we might eat a cake shaped like one. We might describe this period as Yuletide. Tide, and its Christmas-y relative tidings, are also Old English words, the former meaning “a time, a season,” and the latter “news.”
Mistletoe is another ancient word. This parasitic plant has been part of winter celebrations for thousands of years, because it stays green even in cold and snowy weather. I once spent a winter in England and was amazed by the many trees that had kept their green leaves even into January, until I realized that they hadn’t – they were full of mistletoe.
Though the plants are lovely, the word’s etymology is not. It comes ultimately from tan (“twig” in Old English) and mix (“dung”), because mistletoe grows on branches where birds have excreted its seeds.
Going from house to house and singing carols is sometimes called wassailing, and this is an old custom and an even older term. The carolers entertain their audience and are in turn welcomed with food and drink or rewarded with coins. This reciprocal generosity and well-wishing is reflected in the origins of the word wassail, as it comes from a common Old English greeting, wes hál, “be well.”
In the words of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” a carol that dates from the 16th century, may “tidings of comfort and joy” be yours this holiday season.