Welcome back to my series on Holiday History Recollections, where I’m looking at some of the posts I’ve done over the years on the history of holiday words and traditions!

Holiday History Recollection #1
Holiday History Recollection #2
Holiday History Recollection #3

Today, let’s take a look at some words you’re likely to encounter in this holiday season: jolly, X-mas, noel, and “merry” vs. “happy” in the wishes for the season.

Well here’s one that made me smile. I have to say that most times when I hear the word jolly, I think of Christmas. Jolly old St. Nick, jolly elves, etc.

And apparently, that’s a good thing to think of! Though the word comes most immediately from Old French jolif, meaning “festive, amorous, pretty,” there are also suggestions that it’s a loan-word from Germanic tongues, akin to Old Norse jol…which is the word for their winter feast, i.e. Yule…which is Christmas! How fun is that? So it’s totally appropriate to think of Christmas when you hear the word jolly, because it’s related!

Have a holly, jolly Christmas!

I remember, as a child, writing stories and assignments for school around this time of year and occasionally using the abbreviation “X-mas” for Christmas. I remember teachers telling me not to use abbreviations in my assignments, and I remember someone else (can’t recall who) telling me not to use that one for Christmas because it just wasn’t right to take Christ out of Christmas (or something to that effect) and replace it with an X.

So in my middling years, I refused to use it, thinking it somehow mean to Jesus…then later I actually learned where it came from.

Pretty simple, really. The Greek word for Christ is Χριστός. You might notice that first letter. Our X, though it’s the Greek “chi.” No paganism here, no dark, dastardly scheming to remove Jesus from his birthday. Scholars started this as a form of shorthand. The first English use dates to 1755 in Bernard Ward’s History of St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall. Woodward, Byron, and Coleridge, to name a few, have used it too. And interestingly, similar abbreviations date way back. As early as 1100, the form “Xp̄es mæsse” for Christmas was used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

So. It’s still an abbreviation and oughtn’t be used in formal writing any more than w/ or b/c, but it’s also perfectly legitimate as what it is. Always nice to discover something like that. =) And I hope as everyone gears up, they have a truly wonderful one!

When I was asking you all for suggestions of holiday words or traditions you’d like to learn more about, someone suggested “Noel.” I knew this was the French word for Christmas, but I admit that’s where my knowledge ended, so it was fun to learn more!

Noel does indeed come to English through the French, and the French word means “Christmas.” But more literally, noel is from the Latin nael, a variation of natalis, which means “birth day.” In Church Latin, this word was used exclusively for the birth of Christ.

We can see other words with this same root in natal and nativity. I knew where those two came from, but it didn’t occur to me that noel was from a variation of the same word. So there we have it!

Have you ever wondered why in America we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Christmas,” when “happy” is the wish of choice for other holidays?

Experts don’t completely agree on the why of this, but they have some good ideas.

First of all, the history. We can date the term “Merry Christmas” back at least as far as 1534, thanks to a surviving letter from bishop John Fisher, in which he wishes a “Merry Christmas” to Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. We don’t know if it was the most popular wish at the time, but we do know that it solidified in popularity during the Victorian era, largely thanks to Dickens.

He uses the phrase in A Christmas Carol no fewer than 21 times! And he also quotes from the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in there…and did something rather funny in said quote. Apparently the original term was “God rest you merry.” As in, “God keep you in good health and happiness.” This, then, was simply something wished to the gentlemen. But Dickens changed the placement of the comma, turning them into “merry gentlemen.” A change that would have amused his readers at the time, no doubt. And certainly contributed to the idea of Christmas being a day for being merry.

It’s also worth noting that the very first Christmas card said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you” on it.

The idea of “making merry” (versus simply “being happy”) also plays a role in the popularity of the phrase. For hundreds of years, Christmas was the time of the greatest celebration, marked by feasts and parties and games and whatever fun could be scraped together. So this was what people began to wish for each other–not just happiness, but “a good time.”

Some, however, thought it a bit raucous for their tastes…most notably, England’s royal family. “Making merry” was too low-brow and distasteful, so they began wishing everyone a “Happy Christmas” instead, and of course, others in England soon followed suit. “Happy Christmas” is now more common in England across the board…though I daresay there’s still plenty of merry-making going on.

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