Christmas words and phrases

See also: our list of 'Christmas Card Sayings and Expressions'.

Posted by ESC on December 18, 2003

Disclaimer: Additions and corrections will be appreciated. Holiday terms from other religions and cultures are welcome.

CHRISTMAS -- "Christmas. n. 1100 'Cristesmessa,' literally, Christ's festival, Christmas Day, found in Old English 'Cristes maesse' (Cristes genitive of 'Crist' Christ and 'maesse' festival, feast day..." From "The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins of American English Words" by Robert K. Barnhart.

CHRISTMAS CARDS -- The tradition of sending Christmas cards originated in the mid-1800s when a few people began to design handmade cards to send to family and friends. A man named John Calcott Horsley is credited as being the first to actually print Christmas cards. The card depicted a family enjoying the holiday, with scenes of people performing acts of charity. The card was inscribed: "Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You."

CHRISTMAS GIFT! - "A greeting used on Christmas morning, with the first person saying it traditionally receiving a gift. The custom, which has been traced back to as early as 1844, is no longer observed but 'Christmas gift!', which used to be a far more popular Christmas greeting than 'Merry Christmas!' is still heard among older people." From Whistlin' Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions by Robert Hendrickson (Pocket Books, New York, 1993).

CHRISTMAS PICKLE - "Pickle ornaments were considered a special decoration by many families in Germany where the fir tree was decorated on Christmas Eve. It was always the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas tree, with the parents hiding it in the green boughs among the other ornaments. When the children were allowed to view the tree they would begin gleefully searching for the pickle ornament. The children knew that whoever first found that special ornament would receive an extra little gift left by St. Nicholas for the most observant child." From an advertisement for Merck Family's Old World Christmas.

CHRISTMAS PIZZA - The favorite of Good King Wenceslas -- pizza that is "deep-pan, crisp and even."

EPIPHANY - "January 6 is known in western Christian tradition as Epiphany. It goes by other names in various church traditions. In Hispanic and Latin culture, as well as some places in Europe, it is known as Three Kings' Day.Because of differences in church calendars, mainly between the Eastern Orthodox and the western Catholic and Protestant traditions, both Christmas and Epiphany have been observed at different times in the past.Epiphany is the climax of the Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are counted from December 25th until January 5th. The day before Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas, and is sometimes called Twelfth Night, an occasion for feasting in some cultures.The term epiphany means to show" or "to make known" or even "to reveal." In Western churches, it remembers the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing "reveal" Jesus to the world as Lord and King." From the Christian Resource Institute online at cyepiph.html Accessed December 18, 2003.

GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH; PLOUGH MONDAY -- "God speed the plough, 'a wish for success or prosperity,' was originally a phrase in a 15th-century song sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday; the first Monday after the Twelfth Day, which is the end of the Christmas holidays, when farm laborers returned to the plough, soliciting 'plough money' to spend in celebration." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)

HARD CANDY CHRISTMAS -- A bleak Christmas. One where the family is so low on money that everyone gets hard candy for Christmas instead of gifts. The phrase is the title of a song written by Carol Hall and sung by Dolly Parton: "Lord it's like a hard candy Christmas.I'm barely getting through tomorrow.But still I won't let Sorrow bring me way down.I'll be fine and dandy."

MERRY CHRISTMAS -- "Merrie England. England of the Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle Ages was not a very happy place to be, let alone 'merrie.' So why this phrase indicating revelry and joyous spirits, as if England were one perpetual Christmastime? The answer is that the word 'merrie' originally meant merely 'pleasing and delightful,' not bubbling over with festive spirits, as it does today. The same earlier meaning is found in the famous expression, 'the merry month of May.'" From the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, second edition, 1977). Note: In "A Royal Duty" Paul Burrell says the Queen prefers "Happy Christmas" because she believes "Merry Christmas" implies drunkenness. Here's a site that has ways to say Merry Christmas in several languages -- Saymerry.htm Accessed December 18, 2003.

OLD CHRISTMAS -- An old-fashioned name for January 6 or Epiphany (following the Twelve Days of Christmas: Dec. 25 - Jan. 5). From Mountain Range: A Dictionary of Expressions from Appalachia to the Ozarks by Robert Hendrickson (Volume IV, Facts on File Dictionary of American Regional Expressions, Facts on File, New York, N.Y.,1997). Online sources say other names for this day are "Little Christmas" and "Three Kings' Day." See Epiphany.

RE-GIFTING -- The practice of giving a gift you've received to someone else. Considered bad form. From the "Seinfield primer" by Thomas Nord, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky, Wednesday, September 5, 2001.

SHOPPING DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS - American retailer H. Gordon Selfridge (1856-1947) coined this expression - " __ shopping days until Christmas" while working for Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. Later he coined the slogan "the customer is always right" when he opened Selfridge's in London. From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

TWELFTH NIGHT - See Epiphany.

XMAS - "The X abbreviation of 'Xmas' for 'Christmas' is neither modern nor disrespectful. The notion that it is a new and vulgar representation of the word 'Christmas' seems to stem from the erroneous belief that the letter 'X' is used to stand for the word 'Christ' because of its resemblance to a cross, or that the abbreviation was deliberately concocted "to take the 'Christ' out of Christmas." Actually, this usage is nearly as old as Christianity itself, and its origins lie in the fact that the first letter in the Greek word for 'Christ' is 'chi,' and the Greek letter 'chi' is represented by a symbol similar to the letter 'X' in the modern Roman alphabet. Hence 'Xmas' is indeed perfectly legitimate abbreviation for the word 'Christmas' (just as 'Xian' is also sometimes used as an abbreviation of the word 'Christian'). None of this means that Christians (and others) aren't justified in feeling slighted when people write 'Xmas' rather than 'Christmas,' but the point is that the abbreviation was not created specifically for the purpose of demeaning Christ, Christians, Christianity, or Christmas -- it's a very old artifact of a very different language." From the Urban Legends site. Snopes has a Christmas page that includes information about the history behind The Three Wise Men, Rudolph, candy canes, the Twelve Days of Christmas and other Christmas words and phrases.