Charting the origins of your favorite holiday terms
Ho, ho, ho! Merry (almost) Christmas. It’s December again which means you can safely break out the holiday music and proudly don that fluffy reindeer sweater you’ve been holding onto for months. But while we all claim to know everything there is to know about Christmas, how well do we really understand the origins of this holiday and the words that we use to discuss it? If the answer is “not well at all” then you’re in luck. Here’s a cheat sheet:
1) Rudolph (n.): the leader of Santa’s reindeer pack
You know that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you remember that Valentine’s Day was created by a card company to sell more of their product? Well, prepare yourself because you’re about to feel it again. In 1939, a department store named Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to invent a new holiday story to attract more customers. The name comes from the Germanic word “hrodulf” meaning “famous wolf,” which makes me wonder if we have been misidentifying Rudolph’s identity all along…
2) Donner (n.)/Blitzen (n.): two accompanying member’s of Santa’s reindeer pack
While we’re on the subject of reindeer, let’s tackle these two. Although Montgomery Ward created Rudolph to boost their sales numbers, that was not the first time reindeers were associated with Christmas. The idea was originally borrowed from Clement C. Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas,” in which he mentions Santa’s trusted team of reindeer, including Donner and Blitzen. These two reindeer are meant to represent the reindeer team’s power and strength, so it’s only appropriate that their names translate to “Thunder” and “Lightning.”
3) Mistletoe (n.): a plant commonly used in Christmas decorations
We can blame poopy birds for this Christmas tradition. Really. Mistletoe is said to form from seeds found in bird droppings on branches, and so it was given the Old English name “misteltan.” “Mistel” means “dung” and “tan” means “twig” so mistletoe literally means “dung twig” or “dung on a stick.” It became associated with Christmas when Norsemen started putting mistletoe over their doorways to bring peace to their households, which later developed into love and led us to the “kissing” tradition that we all know today.
4) Ornament (n.): glass sphere typically hung on Christmas trees as decoration
The word “ornament” dates all the way back to the 13th century. It comes from the old French word “ornement” meaning “decoration” and from the original Latin word “ornamentum” meaning “embellishment” or “apparatus.”
5) Carol (n.): a religious folk song or hymn
Before I continue, let’s not forget the alternate definition of this word: an independent, no-nonsense zombie killer from AMC’s The Walking Dead. (If I haven’t convinced you to watch it yet, don’t worry. I will.) Carol was used to refer to any general merrymaking or celebratory song made by humans or songbirds, but turned more into what we know today as carols when it reached Tudor England back in the day.
6) Chipolata (n.): fresh sausage served around the holidays
“What? Chipotle is tied to Christmas?? I knew I liked that place, I knew it!” If this is what you’re screaming at your friends and family right now, I suggest that you see someone because you have a Chipotle problem and it’s affecting your ability to read straight. (Or, ignore my advice and let Chipotle come to you because that’s a thing now.) The word I’m talking about it Chipolata, a sausage dish that comes from the Italian word cipollata meaning “made with onions.”
7) Nutcracker (n.): a device for cracking nuts
The story goes that once upon a time, a German farmer searching for a more efficient way to crack nuts offered to reward anyone who could come up with a better device for doing so. While many people stepped up to the plate to donate their expertise, a puppetmaker was the one to “crack” the puzzle with his decorative nut-cracking toy. This may be just another holiday myth, but it’s pretty adorable nonetheless.
8) Eggnog (n.): a drink made from a mixture of beaten eggs, cream, and flavorings
We know eggnog as the sickeningly sweet drink that someone inevitably tries to spike every year at the office Christmas party. Considering the origin of the word itself, this image is not all that surprising. The “nog” in eggnog comes from the old 17th century word for “strong beer,” making eggnog a literal combination of alcohol and egg ingredients. Because nothing says Christmas like sugary alcoholic beverages.
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(Featured image via Broadway Video)