25 Popular Christmas Words and What They Really Mean
Devout Christians may already be familiar with Advent. For people with different beliefs, chocolate-filled advent calendars may come to mind. In Christianity, the Advent season encompasses the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. It’s the first season of the Christian church year. Surprisingly, Advent often does not include Christmas itself.
The term derives from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” The Advent season was traditionally a time for penance and prayer. It was also a time to prepare for the baptism of new Christians on Epiphany in January. This shifted to the coming of Christ, starting around the 6th century.
All Ye Faithful
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a traditional Christmas hymn. The song invites the “faithful” to journey symbolically to Bethlehem. “Ye” is another way of saying “you,” in this context. Englishman John Francis Wade wrote the hymn in Latin in 1743. It is the United Methodist Hymnal No. 234.
The first line in Latin reads:
Around 1841, Frederick Oakeley translated stanzas one, two, three and six into English. Abbé Etienne Jean François Borderies separately translated three stanzas. Combined, the translations form the version sung today.
The song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” encourages listeners to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Similarly, “Deck the Halls” mentions “boughs of holly.” But, what are “boughs” exactly? A basic definition of “bough” is a branch of a tree, but the term usually refers to larger or main branches.
“Bough” traces its roots to the Old English word bog, which means shoulder or arm. It also relates to the German word Bug, meaning hock or joint. “Bough” is effectively the same term used to describe the bow of a ship, which is like the vessel’s shoulders.
Buche de Noel
Or, if you want to be accurate about it, throw in those accents and write this traditional dessert as bûche de Noël. The French term translates as “Christmas log” (or rather “log of Christmas”). You might know the log-shaped cake better as a Yule log. It’s popular in such countries as France, Belgium and Switzerland.
A buche de Noel is a type of roulade, like a Swiss roll. There are lots of Yule log recipes and variations. The most common calls for a chocolate cake, filled with whipped cream and topped with frosting. Some people enjoy yellow sponge cake with chocolate buttercream. It’s up to you!
“Song” is a more general term. And “hymn” can apply in a more religious context. But, you really only use the word “carol” with songs and hymns during Christmastime. What is the origin of “carol” anyway?
The old French word “carole” likely led to the modern English word “carol.” “Carole” dates back to the 1100s and it describes a type of circle dance. This relates to the Latin word “carula,” which means the same thing. As the centuries went on, singing took center stage over dancing.
A popular legend, which probably isn’t true, is that the word “carol” comes from Carol Poles. The story goes that the little girl went missing in London some time in the late 1800s. People looked for her door-to-door, like how modern day carolers go door-to-door singing their songs.
From The Lord of the Rings to The Legend of Zelda, elves have featured in many popular stories. You’ve even got the Keebler Elves baking up delicious cookies. They’re just like the team of elves who make toys in Santa’s workshop.
Before they migrated to the North Pole, elves started out as supernatural beings. The concept of an elf seems to have originated in Germanic folklore. They’re often associated with Norse mythology as well.
The modern concept of the Christmas elf likely traces to Die Wichtelmanner (“The Elves and the Shoemaker”). The story is part of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales from the early 1800s. Around this same time, in 1823, the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” described Saint Nicholas as “a right jolly old elf.”
When it comes to descriptive Christmas words, “festive” takes the cake! The “fest” root of “festive” pertains to a feast; it’s just missing a vowel. The same “fest” gives English such words as “festival.” The word derives its origin from the French word festif, which in turn comes from the Latin festivus. Yes, that’s the same “Festivus” as the one from the popular TV series Seinfeld. Funny how these words come full circle.
The Latin word festivus describes an occasion that is joyful and merry. That sounds like the Christmas holiday season, wouldn’t you say?
Frankincense is one of the most common words associated with Christmas. That’s because one of the three wise men brought frankincense as a gift for baby Jesus. Frankincense is a type of gum resin used in perfume and burned in incense. The “frank” part derives from the Old French term franc, meaning noble or pure.
Put together, frankincense refers to “high quality incense” and it is often symbolic of divinity. When burned, frankincense emits a sweet, citrus-like fragrance.
Besides lights and ornaments, you may adorn your Christmas tree with garlands too. You might wrap the versatile Christmas decoration around bannisters or hang them along the wall. Strictly speaking, a garland is a decorative wreath. Traditionally, it consists of flowers, leaves and other natural materials.
While you may think of garland like a long and fluffy string, the term also includes garland to be worn as a crown or in a circular shape as a wreath. Indeed, the word was first used to describe a crown of flowers and leaves as early as the 14th century.
You may know about “greetings” and “wishes” around the holiday season, but how do “tidings” fit into the mix? Whereas you might offer well wishes to a dear friend, “tidings” have more to do with announcing or delivering news. And so, to offer glad tidings is to say you wish they receive good news. Or, you’re the bearer of good news yourself!
Hark! Who are the herald angels and why are they singing? Methodist leader Charles Wesley wrote the song in 1739. This version of the song opens with “Hark, how the welkin rings.” Here, “welkin” refers to heaven. George Whitefield revised and adapted the poem in 1753. He’s the one who added herald angels and the “newborn King.”
A herald is an official messenger. In this case, the herald angels are delivering the good news of Christ’s birth. They’re singing their glories to the newborn King. And “hark” is just an old way to say, “Listen up! I’ve got something to tell you.”
The holiday season generally runs from late November to early January each year. In the United States, it usually starts around Thanksgiving and ends around New Year’s Day. While you might use it interchangeably with the Christmas season, “holiday season” is more inclusive. It includes such other holidays as Hanukkah, Diwali and the Winter Solstice. The word “holiday” itself derives from “holy day,” so it’s still religious in origin.
Holly is a type of shrug with dark green leaves, red berries and small white flowers. It’s a common part of many Christmas motifs. The prickly leaves symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus wore. In fact, the German word for holly is christdorn, or “Christ thorn.” The red berries represent Christ’s blood.
Despite this obvious connection to pain and suffering, “holly” has more positive overtones today. You can wish someone a “holly, jolly Christmas,” like in the popular song. The Old English word holen means protector or prince, like Jesus. You’ll notice that the evergreen holly remains strong and vigilant through the harshness of winter.
Think of Krampus kind of like the opposite of Santa Claus. Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas go around giving gifts to children who’ve been good. By contrast, Krampus punishes children who’ve been bad.
Originating in Central European pagan folklore, particularly alpine regions, Krampus is half-goat, half-demon. He’s covered in brown or black fur, with horns, hooves, fangs, and a long pointed tongue. The name “Krampus” comes from the krampen, the German word for claw.
Originally, mincemeat included actual meat, usually beef or venison. As such, British mince pies were more savory than sweet, filled with a mixture of finely minced meat. Suet, the white fat on the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep, was common too.
Modern day mincemeat recipes often substitute vegetable shortening for suet instead. The rest of the mixture may include chopped dried fruit, candied citrus peel, sugar, and spices. Over time, the meat got phased out and the mixture included more fruit. So, mincemeat pie became more of a holiday dessert dish, both in England and abroad.
Few Christmas words are quite as romantic as mistletoe. Tradition dictates that you must kiss someone if you’re under the mistletoe together. Unfortunately, what “mistletoe” actually means isn’t quite so romantic. It comes from two Anglo-Saxon words. Mistel means dung, filth and urine (as in “mist”). Tan means twig. Thus, “mistletoe” means dung on a stick. Bird droppings are common on mistletoe, which grows parasitically on trees.
What about kissing under the mistletoe? Celtic Druids noticed that mistletoe blossomed even during the coldest of winters. They took this as a sign of life and, by extension, fertility. Kiss under the mistletoe and you’ll have a baby.
If frankincense means “high quality incense,” then what is this gift from the other Magi? Myrrh is a natural gum resin, like frankincense. As an oil, it was once used to prevent infections, treat wounds, and for embalming. Historically, myrrh was also used as a holy anointing oil, as well as in perfume and incense. Myrrh represents death and mourning, foreshadowing what was to come for Jesus several years later.
When thinking of traditional words associated with Christmas, nativity often comes to mind. You might think of the song “Away in a Manger” as you picture baby Jesus surrounded by Mary, Joseph, and the three wise men. You’ll often find sheep and a donkey in a nativity scene too. The word derives from nativitas, the Latin word for “birth.” It is the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
In English, Noel is basically synonymous with Christmas. That’s because noël means Christmas in French. Written in lower-case, a “noel” is a Christmas carol. Going further back, the term derives from natalis, a Latin word relating to one’s birth. This extended to the celebration of Christ’s birth as Christmas or Noël (with a capital N).
An ornament is anything meant to make something else look more attractive. In the context of Christmas words, you likely think of the ornaments you hang on the Christmas tree. You can trace the word back to ornare, the Latin verb to equip or adorn. In other words, it’s trinket to make things pretty, serving no other functional purpose.
Many other words associated with Christmas can trace their roots to biblical references or Latin roots. That’s not the case with poinsettia. The red flowers, native to Taxco del Alarcon in southern Mexico, are named after botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett. Also a physician, Poinsett was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He brought the plant home to South Carolina in 1828.
Poinsettia Day is on December 12 each year, commemorating Poinsett’s death on that day in 1851. Today, there are over 100 varieties of poinsettia in a range of colors. Other names for poinsettia include the lobster flower and the flame-leaf flower, as well as la Flor de la Nochebuena, or Flower of the Holy Night.
Modern day Santa Claus borrows a lot of inspiration from many different places. There’s Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and more. Urban legend may lead you to believe that Coca-Cola invented the legend of Santa. That’s not true, but the company’s ads did shape a lot of how popular media portrays Santa today.
As far as the name itself, Santa Claus derives from Sinter Klaas, a Dutch nickname for Sint Nikolaas (Saint Nicholas). You may have also heard “Kris Kringle” as a name for the same jolly man in the red suit. That comes from “Kristkindl,” a German term meaning “Christ Child.”
“While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”
The children aren’t dreaming about fruit; they’re dreaming about candy. A sugar plum is just a piece of hard candy (or a dragée) that’s shaped like a plum: round or oval, and small in size. Continuing with the plum theme, sugar plums are often purple in color too.
The “sugar” part of the name is quite literal, as sugar plums are hardened sugar balls. Inside, you might find a seed, nut or spice. Sugar plums have been around in one form or another since the 16th century.
Seinfeld’s Frank Constanza might find it distracting. Even so, tinsel is a very popular Christmas decoration. The decorative material is usually metallic, with many thin strips of sparkly material. That makes sense, as the word comes from the old French word for sparkle: estincele.
Invented around 1610 in Nuremberg, modern tinsel originally consisted of extruded silver. Other shiny metals replaced silver over the years, including copper, aluminum and lead foil. Today, most tinsel is plastic, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), coated in a metallic finish.
These days, Yule is fundamentally synonymous with Christmas. As early as the fourth century, though, Yule was a pagan festival celebrated by Germanic peoples. Yuletide (Yule season or Yule time) lasts from around mid-November to early January.
Beyond historical practice by Germanic peoples, Yule is also connected to Nordic countries. This includes references to the Norse god Odin, for instance. Over time, pagan origins gave way to Christianized adaptations. That’s how Yule traditions were integrated into Christmas celebrations.
Spread Holiday Cheer
Ready to spread some holiday cheer with even more Christmas words? Pour yourself a glass of eggnog or apple cider! Then, read through the merry origins of common Christmas greetings. Do you know why we usually say “merry” Christmas and not “happy” Christmas?
Michael Kwan is a professional writer and editor with over 14 years of experience. Fueled by caffeine and WiFi, he's no stranger to word games and dad jokes.