Holiday History Recollection #4

Holiday History Recollection #4

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.

Holiday History Recollection #3

Holiday History Recollection #3

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

This week, let’s look at some decoration traditions: Christmas wreaths, trees, mistletoe, and a Yule log.

Did you know that Christmas wreaths have their origins in Christmas trees? I’d never really paused to wonder where they came from, but upon reading that, it made total sense.

In Europe, where the pine forests inspired the tradition of bringing something green and eternal into the home to celebrate the bringer of eternal life, the wreath soon took shape too. It happened quite naturally–people had to trim and shape the trees they brought inside for Christmas, which meant boughs left over. Well, these people weren’t wasteful–they decorated with the limbs too.

And the idea of weaving them into a circle was apparently a natural one–another symbol of eternity, after all! I found it fascinating to learn that those first Christmas wreaths were not hung on the door or set on the table to hold candles, but were in fact hung upon the tree! Yep, that’s right. The first wreaths were ornaments.

It’s also important to note that throughout history, wreaths were a symbol of victory–just think of Greeks of old wearing a laurel or olive-leaf crown when they won a game. This is an idea that never went away, so creating one from evergreens at Christmas time was just another element to the symbolism of all Christ represents for us.

The idea of an advent wreath in particular is credited to Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Lutheran pastor.

Like many other Christmas traditions that we now consider standard, wreaths began to be adopted by the general populace all throughout Europe and America during the 19th century.

Christmas trees. Is there anything more iconic these days when it comes to holiday decorations? But have you ever paused to actually consider why we bring an entire tree into our house once a year…or even go to the trouble of erecting fake ones?

The tradition can be traced back to Germany in the Middle Ages. Evergreens had long been a symbol of eternal life, in many religions and cultures, including Christianity. The idea of decorating a tree at this particular time of year however is, interestingly enough, not because of the celebration of the birth of Christ. Nope. It’s because it’s also the feast day of Adam and Eve, and in the Middle Ages, this included reenactments of the story for the masses, who couldn’t read it for themselves and wouldn’t have owned any expensive books like the Bible anyway. Well, in Europe, the only trees still green at that time of year were, of course, evergreens. And the only fruit that lasted that long when picked was the apple. So apples were tied to evergreen branches to represent the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But it wasn’t long before that decorated tree began to be a symbol to Germans of the whole season. Each family began cutting down its own tree and bringing it inside–and this came with some rules. The trees had to be trimmed into a perfect triangular shape, to represent the trinity. They were usually decorated with things like apples, pretzels, wafer cookies, nuts, and straw. (Historically, trees were undecorated on Epiphany and the children got to eat the treats!)

Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first to affix lighted candles to the tree, to try to mimic the beauty of stars viewed through pine boughs.

Christmas trees were unique to the area now called Germany for several centuries. But in the late 1700s and early 1800s, German immigrants brought the tradition to America, and it soon caught on here. In England, Prince Albert brought the tradition with him to the palace, and he and Queen Victoria made it iconic there as well in 1848, when the London Illustrated News published an image of them and their children gathered around the tree…with presents underneath. This is the first published record of gifts under a Christmas tree. By the time Albert died in 1861, the tradition had been cemented in England as well, with him getting the credit for it.

Today I’m not examining the etymology of the word itself so much as the history of the tradition of hanging mistletoe at Christmas. Is this part of your family’s tradition?

I’ve never really taken part in it, but certainly we all know that if one pauses beneath mistletoe, one cannot refuse a kiss. In past centuries, this was believed to be good luck and to guarantee love, marriage, and children in the coming year (for those still unmarried). The ball of mistletoe would be burned after the Twelve Days of Christmas to seal the fates of those couples who had kissed beneath it.

But where did the tradition come from? Well it dates back far beyond the coming of Christianity to Europe. For millennia, mistletoe was revered as a sacred plant and thought to contain powers of fertility and good luck and the ability to ward off evil. The plant typically grows on apple trees, but once in a while can be found on oaks (also sacred), so the oak mistletoe is especially sacred and would be cut by Druids with a golden sickle.

The legend goes as follows: the goddess Frigga had a beloved son, Balder, who was the god of summer and hence all things growing and alive. Balder had a terrible dream that he was going to die, so his mother went to every part of nature, above the ground and below, asking them to promise not to kill her son. But she neglected to request this of the mistletoe, which neither had roots below ground nor grew on its own above. So the tricky god Loki, enemy of Balder, made a poison from the berries of the mistletoe and dipped an arrow in it, shooting and killing Balder. For three days, every element and plant tried to revive him, to no avail. Finally, his mother’s own tears revived him, which then turned to little white berries on the mistletoe. She was so overjoyed that she kissed everyone who passed beneath the hanging plant.

You can see where this would easily become part of a tradition surrounding the birth of Christ, right? Someone who lay dead for three days and then was brought back to life, ultimate Love triumphing over Death. Especially since this plant was cut traditionally on the solstice already–and the winter solstice had long been established as the birth of Christ (read why here, if you haven’t already). It was easily incorporated into new traditions and became a lasting one–though still tinged with superstition.

So where do you come down on mistletoe and kissing beneath it? Fun custom? Good luck? Or something to be avoided at all costs?

In Old English, Christmas day was called geol (not to be confused with gaol, which is jail–ha ha ha), taken from Old Norse jol. Jol was a heathen feast day, taken over by English so long ago that no one’s sure exactly when it happened. Though we do know that “jolly” comes from jol. 😉

Origianlly, geol, or yule, meant solely Christmas Day. It also happens that there was a cognate, giuli, that was the Anglo-Saxon name for a two-month midwinter season of feasting, so the two got mixed together. When English first borrowed the word, it meant the 12 Day Feast of Christmas–December 25 through January 6, the Epiphany. It was largely replaced by the word Christmas by the eleventh century, except for in Danish-settled parts of England.

Writers, however, revived the word in the 19th century to capture the particular charm of Christmas in Merry Ol’ England. Oh yes, it’s always the writers, LOL.

Yultide (literally yule time or Christmastime) was recorded in the 15th century, and the first written mention of the yule log is from the 17th century and was a ceremonially chosen log (sometimes an entire tree)  picked to have an enduring burn for Christmas.

Holiday History Recollection #2

Holiday History Recollection #2

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!

If you’ve missed the previous ones in this series, you can find them here:

Holiday History Recollection #1

Earlier this week we looked at the stories behind some songs…today let’s look at some tasty holiday treats: eggnog, wassail, fruitcake, and Christmas cookies!

What’s the history of eggnog, and how did it get tied to Christmas?

The beverage itself dates back to the Middle Ages as “posset,” a drink that combined milk, eggs, alcohol, and spices. The egg part of its eventual name, then, is obvious–and it seems that nog was a strong, ale-like drink, though no one’s quite sure on the etymology of that part.  The ingredients, however, were expensive, which meant it was reserved for the wealthy or for times of celebration.

At least until the recipe came to America. Since so many people here had farms, and hence access to cream and eggs and cheap Caribbean rum, eggnog quickly became a favorite beverage for special occasions for everyone. George Washington even shared his favorite recipe (which was quite heavy on the liquor, LOL). The drink became known as eggnog first in America around 1775.

Are you an eggnog fan? Store bought? Homemade? With or without alcohol? (My daughter and I prefer it without, but my husband enjoys the flavors more with a dash of sherry or rum in there.)

We’ve all heard “wassailing” in some of the old Christmas songs. And you probably have an awareness (vague or otherwise) of wassail being a drink. But if you’re anything like me (before I had to research it for a book a few years ago), that’s the extent of your knowledge. 😉

Wassail is from the Old Norse ves heill, which literally means “be healthy.” It was first a salutation and then became a sort of drinking salute among the Danes in England, which then spread to the natives. But 1300, it wasn’t only something one said while lifting a glass, but also what was in the glass–particularly spiced ale that was served on Christmas Eve.

By 1600, it had taken on a bit of a “carousing” meaning, which then extended by 1742 to the practice of going house to house on Christmas Eve, caroling and offering the traditional spiced drink. In Colonial America, wassail was traditionally sold by the poor to the rich–an excuse for them to come in and see how the other half lived, and a way for the rich to give alms to the poor.

So this season, if you lift you glass in salute (whatever might be in it), try saying “Wassail!” and see if anyone understands, LOL.

Ever wonder why this cake has become a holiday staple, despite all the jokes about how much people hate it?

Well, let’s start by stripping off the layers of dislike. Up until they began to be mass-produced, fruitcake was a much-beloved special-occasion treat, made with care and considered a rare treat–and a long-lasting one.

The fruit in fruitcake is dried and candied (soaked in sugar), which means it’s well preserved. The cake itself is often made or stored with alcohol too, which in turn kills bacteria. The result? This cake can last. Up to 25 YEARS is the accepted limit (??) on its shelf-life, and apparently it was often traditional to make a cake one Christmas for eating the next. (Yeah. Sure. Why not.) Cultures around the world have their own varieties of fruitcake, with slight variations but equal presence.

So why did it get tied to Christmas? Well, it was reserved for special occasions for centuries, because the ingredients were costly. Fruit, historically, was not cheap, and neither were sugar and butter. It was a favorite cake for weddings, and of course, that most special day of the year–Christmas! So to give a gift of a fruitcake was thoughtful and would have been well received. People could treasure it, savor it, enjoy a bit here and then a bit there without fear of it spoiling.

Where do you come down on fruitcake? Special treat, or dreaded gift? Have you ever tried a homemade variety, or just the mass-produced kind? (I’d be interested in sampling a homemade one sometime! I’ll have to add it to my eventual-holiday-baking list.)

Ah, Christmas cookies. The baking, the decorating, the consuming…all part of the holiday tradition in many families. And it’s been that way for hundreds of years.

Feasts have been a part of Christmas celebration for untold centuries, and since it was counted as one of the most important days of the Christian year, that meant that all the expensive, special foods were reserved for that day. Which included spices, sugar, butter, and lard. So naturally, when one wanted to make a special treat for Christmas, one brought out these prized ingredients and created a sweet delicacy, often in the form of cookies.

The concept of beautiful decorated cookies originated with the Germans, like many of our other Christmas traditions. Why did they go to such trouble to cut out and decorate their cookies? Because they then used them as decorations on the tree! Cookie cutters became widely (and cheaply) available in the late 1800s, helping this tradition to spread.

So when did we start leaving these sweet treats for Santa? Interestingly, that dates only to 1930s America. In the throes of the Great Depression, most families didn’t have a lot…but they wanted to instill in their children the idea of not only being grateful for what they had and what they received, but of giving too. Cookies were something small and relatively inexpensive but nevertheless precious that families could offer in gratitude. Originally, stockings were filled with such treats for Santa. But over the years, people instead put the cookies and milk out for him and left the stockings empty, to be filled by him.

Holiday History Recollection #1

Holiday History Recollection #1

Over the years I’ve had so much fun looking up not only the etymology of holiday words, but also the history behind some of our common traditions. So now that we’re in Advent, I thought I’d do a series of recollections and look at those posts from years past…because I don’t know about you, but I often need a refresher!

Let’s start out with a look at the stories (true and…not) behind two Christmas songs.

I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy learning about the true story behind things like songs, poems, and stories…much like the one that goes along with the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”

This song is based on the famous life of a Bohemian duke, Wenceslaus I (known in Czech as Svatý Václav). Wenceslaus was renowned for his piety and Christian devotion, and nothing could stop him from doing good…even terrible weather. The event memorialized in the song took place on December 26, the feast day of St. Stephen, a day traditionally reserved for delivering alms to the poor. Wenceslaus was so determined to take these alms to his people that he trekked out in the middle of a blizzard to accomplish it. The song is from the perspective of one of his servants, who thought at one point during the journey that he’d surely die from the cold; the snow was so thick he couldn’t see what was ahead of him. But he made his way by literally following in the footsteps of the duke, which led him unerringly to the door of the people he was helping.

Wenceslaus lived from 907-935 and is famous for his midnight vigils and dedication to protecting and providing for his people, especially the poor. Upon his death, many biographies were written about him, and he was soon named a saint. So great was his popularity that the Holy Roman Emporer Otto even posthumously conferred on him the title of “king.” How fascinating is that? He has been held up for centuries as what a true, noble leader should be.

Wenceslaus has remained a popular figure in both Bohemia and England for centuries, resulting in the poem and Christmas carol we all know, written in 1853 by John Mason Neale. The variation in the spelling of his name has happened in the time since the song was written; it originally had that ‘u’ in there.

Because my kids asked me after I went through the original St. Nicholas story with them, when Rudolph came about, and I had no clue.

As it turns out, our beloved reindeer was an invention of a writer named Robert L. May, who was hired by the Montgomery Ward company to create an original piece of work for their annual children’s coloring book. May devised Rudolph in 1939…to some opposition. The publishers didn’t like the red nose idea. Red noses were associated with drunkards, which certainly wasn’t the image they wanted to portray. But when May had his illustrator friend create a cutesy deer character (they decided actual reindeer weren’t cute enough so went with a more familiar-to-Americans white-tailed variety) with a beaming red nose, the powers-that-be relented–and the story took off to amazing success. The original poem was written in the meter of “The Night Before Christmas.”

The song we all know and love was written a decade later, by the author’s brother-in-law. It remained the all-time best selling album in the country until the 80s!

The stop-motion animation version that I grew up thinking was the only Rudolph story worth watching, LOL, came about in 1964. Though very popular, this movie apparently doesn’t stick very accurately to the original poem. Which now makes me want to look up the original and see what’s been changed!

So there we have it. Our history of Rudolph.

Word of the Week – King

Word of the Week – King

The start of Advent seems like a great time to look at the history of a word that reminds Christians of Christ–our Lord and…you guessed it…KING!

King is obviously a word that’s been around forever and hasn’t varied much in meaning. But have you ever wondered where it came from? More, have you ever wondered if it had anything to do with kin, which looks so similar?

Short answer: it does!

Kin has meant “a family, a tribe, a race” since Old English days, and one of the main speculations (though it’s a bit uncertain) is that king is directly related, making it literally “leader of the people,” like what we’d today call a chief. It or its related words in other Germanic langauges has been applied to leaders of all sorts over the centuries–not just political figures or heads of state, but church leaders or the heads of particular fields as well.

The Three Kings, as in the Wise Men of the biblical story, has been used since around 1200. The chess piece came about around 1400 (did you know chess was that old?), the playing card around 1560, and finally, the piece in checkers/draughts in 1830.

Word of the Week – Upset

Word of the Week – Upset

We’ve all been there. We’ve had a bad day, something went wrong, someone hurt our feelings, or maybe we’re just not feeling well physically–times when the best word we can find to describe our state is upset. We all know what we mean–that nothing’s quite right, that things are unsettled, that the order has been overturned.

But have you ever paused to wonder at the word itself? It seems, at first glance, to be fairly straightforward…but when you look up the history, you’re in for a surprise!

Upset has been in the English language since the mid-1400s…but not as we know it. Rather, it meant “to set up, to fix.” Wait–what? That’s the opposite of what it means now! But until the early 1800s, that was the sole use of the word, and the one used for our current meaning was in fact overset, which is now obsolete.

It wasn’t until 1803 that the modern use began to appear, with the meaning of “overturned, capsized”–so a boat would be upset. In 1805, the metaphorical sense of mental discomposure came along. And it wasn’t until the 1830s that it began to be used for an unsettled stomach.