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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Words of Holidays Past

We still employ the same words in our holiday celebrations that our ancestors used. While some of our forebears may have known the reasons we use the words "mistletoe," "wassail," "poinsettia," "Xmas," "solstice," and "advent," among others, but do you? Here you will find out.


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People have celebrated the Winter Solstice and its accompanying holidays – Christmas and New Years – for centuries, often using phrases and words that have clear meanings, but whose origins have been obscured by the ages. Here we will examine some of the terminology of the year-end (and –beginning) celebrations in an attempt to better understand what our ancestors meant when they went a-wassailing or presented a neighbor with a poinsettia.

In Latin, the term "adventus" is translated as meaning "arrival" or "coming." The word "adventicius" means "unusual" or "extraordinary," and "adventitia" means "knowledge" or "warning" (Stelten). Which word gave birth to what we call "Advent," or the season of preparation and devotion preceding Christmas? Perhaps all three, though the first is the one most commonly considered the reason we call this particular time of year "Advent" (Barnhart). However, anything that is approaching has its advent, as does this particular article (its advent – preparation – being research through many etymology and Christmas holiday books). Hopefully, what will follow will also prove to be unusual and perhaps, to some, even extraordinary. Take this as a warning: we are about to discover the reasons for the seasonal terminology we take for granted.

Let's begin our exploration into the terminology of the season by looking at that word "solstice," which, when combined with "winter" means that dark days are ahead! My parents were married on 21 December 1940 and my father often joked that he selected that day because it was the longest night of the year. That means, of course, that it is the time when the sun is the furthest from the earth. Some say that, on that day, the sun appears to stand still. The Latin word for "sun" is "sol", and, when combined with the Latin for "stand still" – "stitium" – we end up with "solstitium", or "the sun, standing still," "solstice" (Barnhart). I can identify with this for there are times during the winter when it seems as if the sun is, indeed, standing still . . . somewhere else!

The holiday season is often also called "yuletide." What an interesting word: "Yule." Some say it is synonymous with "jolly," probably because both may have their origins in the Old Norse word "jol", a winter solstice festival that was celebrated by heathens, not the Christian holiday that we recognize today (Hendrickson). In later years, the twelve-day heathen festival was replaced by Christmas celebrations, and the term was altered and the season expanded; some say the yule season spans from mid-November to mid-December while others consider "Yule" to last from December through January. The more commonly heard term "yuletide" dates from 1475 while its "Yule" origin can be traced back to 1200 (in reference to Christmas) and before 899 (in reference to the earlier mentioned hedonistic festival) (Barnhart).

We know that the hallmark of the Yule season is the celebration of Christmas, or, as some abbreviate it, "Xmas." So many object to that shortening of the word "Christ," believing that it is an insult to the Savior (perhaps considering the mathematical pronouncement that "X" is the unknown, so to substitute it for "Christ" might be calling the baby Jesus an unknown; certainly insulting, from that perspective). However, most genealogists are already well aware that, in Latin, X simply is the respectful, and recognized, abbreviation for "Christ" or "Chris." Latin Church documents, identifying a child named "Christopher" are likely to list him as "Xtopher." Now, his family and friends never called him, literally, "Xtopher"; everyone knew that the "X" simply meant (and means) "Chris" (Minert), much as we would use "Wm" to mean "William" and "Jas" to mean "James" (in the written form, not the spoken, and never on official pedigree charts or family group sheets). So we need not get upset when we read our ancestors letters or diaries in which they write of "Xmas coming"; they just knew their Latin! Of course the addition of "mas" simply meant that the celebration was of "Christ's mass" (Panati).

Then there are Christmas customs that are accompanied by some unique terms, still practiced and used in many households around the world today. The tradition of giving the poinsettia to friends and family has often caused many a household to have more of these red or white flowering plants around than the traditional evergreens. Why the poinsettia and where ever did it get such a strange name? Well, as is often the case with a "strange name," you can almost be assured that it was named for a person. It is actually native to Mexico where it is called "flower of the blessed night" (in deference to the shape of the petals and their resemblance to the Christmas star) (Panati). But its introduction into American Christmases occurred in 1829: Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, having concluded four years of service in Mexico as minister from the United States, returned to his home in Charleston, South Carolina, bringing with him this unique plant. He employed the skills of his gardener who tended it, discovering that it reached the peak of its beauty at the Christmas holiday time. It flourished in the South and was used there, first, as a symbol of the season. But the tradition of the flower being an icon for peace comes from a specific incident in the time of Poinsett and his position in Mexico. During a particular revolution in the midst of the Mexican-American War, some Americans in the foreign country made their way to the embassy for sanctuary. Poinsett admitted them and then threw an American flag across the doorway, single-handedly keeping out the Mexicans who sought to pursue the refugees. His actions of courage in an effort to keep the peace gave an added meaning to the flower that was to bear his name and, when we give it to a friend or relative, we are presenting a symbol of peace (Grinstead).

Let's stick with the plants for a moment. Another traditional icon of the season is "mistletoe." I cannot help but wonder how children today, familiar with 21st Century warfare, might first interpret that word – the toe of a missile? Of course, the name, or the custom of kissing under it, has nothing to do with battlefield projectiles; it is actually a parasite that grows on evergreens (doesn't sound very romantic, does it?). The tradition of meeting and kissing under this object dates back to the time of the Druids, who hung the sprigs in their homes as insurance for a prosperous and harmonious new year (this being 200 years before Christ). The tradition stated that, should enemies meet under a tree on which this was growing, they were to lay down arms, put aside difference, and dwell in peace for a day (Panati). The word itself comes from the Old English "mistiltan", translated as "dung" – "mistil" – and "twig" – "tan" – respectively. This is because the original belief was that the parasitic plant was the product of bird droppings. Of course, its pagan beginnings as an icon of the holiday season caused it to be banned from the early Christian services (Hendrickson). An interesting myth that goes along with this is that some thought the cross of Christ was made of mistletoe, which had once been a sturdy tree, but, because of this role it took, was condemned to forever live on other plants and could never again survive as a noble plant (Rodeheaver).

Now, with this season of celebration and merriment, we must certainly add food and drink! Our ancestors created something they called "wassail" (pronounced wahs'el) and it is defined as a spiced punch or alcoholic drink, often with apple possibly used as the base (Glazier). But that's not where the word came from, nor its original meaning to our ancestors. "Wassail" comes from Old Icelandic "ves heill", a phrase meaning "be ("ves") healthy ("heill")." Some believe it was used as a toast, particularly apropos during the holidays with a new year on the horizon. At this point, we still don't see the word used as a noun (as in the song, "Here we come a-wassailing"). However, Shakespeare introduced the term as meaning "revelry" and "carousing" in Hamlet (Barnhart), which, no doubt, metamorphosed into the "wassailing" activity, implying singing and merriment, often traveling from place to place (or house to house) during the holiday season (Grant & Wilbur).

Let us examine that singing, often from one house to the next, but also taking place in houses of worship, concert halls, and the local mall today. What was and is sung? Why, carols, of course. Another word that we don't usually see any other time of the year: do we sing "pumpkin carols" for Hallowe'en, "Easter carols" in the spring, or "Valentine's Day carols" on the 14th of February? Hardly. But at Christmas, we bring out the carol books, dust off the piano, and sing! (Or maybe just hum along with a favorite recording of Christmas carols, passed down through the ages.) A carol, from the Old French "carole", meaning "a choral dance on a flute" (Barnhart), differs from a hymn in that it is often more light-hearted or simple in both performance and composition. A carol is less formal than a hymn and has a tendency to be sung with more enthusiasm and expression of joy. Another translation: "a song to accompany dancing"; but I think it is safe to assume that, over time, the dancing part has become optional. There are places where one would not sing a hymn, but where a carol would be most welcome (Polack).

And so, as another year comes to a close, we prepare for this, the most joyous of holidays. Now, that word "holiday" has an interesting origin as well. It combines two Old English words: "hālig" and "dæg" meaning, respectively, "holy day." Originally, of course, the term meant exclusively a day for religious activities but, over time, has become adjusted to more popular trends of recreation and festivities (Barnhart).

So we approach, again, a season with plans for our own festivities, including partaking of holiday traditions: perhaps doing some caroling and giving poinsettias to our neighbors, maybe stealing a kiss under the mistletoe, and again wishing each other a Merry Christmas (with or without the X). But let us take a moment to remember what this season was like for our ancestors. With the advent of the solstice came long nights, perhaps warmed by a fire on the Yule log and sip of warm wassail, probably with hopes for a fortuitous New Year. Depending on your family's origins, children may have waited for Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, or some other icon, bearing good will and gifts. Enjoy your family's presence with you – those in the flesh and those in the spirit. And thank you, dear readers, for examining the meanings of words with me this past year and look for more word explorations in 2010. Happy Holidays to all.


Barnhart, Robert K. (ed). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers Harrap Publishers, Ltd., 2003.

Glazier, Stephen. Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1998.

Grant, George, & Wilbur, Gregory. Christmas Spirit: The Joyous Stories, Carols, Feasts, and Traditions of the Season. New York: Gramercy Books, 1999.

Grinstead, Frances. "Poinsettia's Godfather," Yuletide in Many Lands: Carols, Customs, Legends, Poems. Minneapolis: The Alfred Cole Co., 1939.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Minert, Roger P. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents. Woods Cross, UT: GRT Publications, 2001.

Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Polack, W. G. "Famous Christmas Carols," Christmas in Many Lands: Yuletide Carols, Customs, Legends, and Poems. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938.

Rodeheaver, Ruthella, compiler. Christmas Customs and Carols. Winona Lake, IN: The Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co., 1942.

Stelten, Leo F. Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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