Christmas will soon be here, so what better time to take a look at some of the words associated with the holiday beginning with the big day itself? The word “Christmas” comes from the Middle English “Cristemass,” which in tern comes from the Old English “Cristes Messe.”

Xmas, which is not pronounced “Eksməs,” is not an attempt to remove Christ from Christmas. Rather it is an abbreviation of the Greek name of Christ (Christos), which begins with the Greek letter Chi, a spelling that dates back to around 1100 A.D.

Another name for Christmas is “yule,” which comes from the Old English word “geol,” which referred to a midwinter festival that runs from Dec. 21 through Jan. 1 and is centered around the winter solstice after which the days began to get longer.

Noel is a French word for “Christmas,” whose origins go back to the concepts of the birth of the church. “Noel” is actually related to the English word “natal,” and another Christmas term, “nativity.” (When not capitalized, “noel” means “carol,” which, in turn, can be traced back to the late Latin word “choraula,” a flute player accompanying a chorus.)

An alternative to the commercialism of Christmas is Festivus, a made-up holiday that appeared in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld. The holiday, which was created by the father of Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe around 1966, is celebrated on Dec. 23.

Speaking of commercialism, the term “Black Friday” was first used to describe our busiest shopping day on Nov. 29, 1975 in The New York Times. The term had been used in Philadelphia since the late 1950’s when it referred to the day between Thanksgiving and the Army-Navy football game.


The first Christmas gifts were, of course, those brought to Baby Jesus by the three wise men. They were: Gold (a symbol of kingship on earth), Frankincense (an aromatic tree gum resin that’s a symbol of deity) and myrrh (another fragrant resin that’s also an embalming oil and a symbol of death).

Worldwide, the names for the jolly guy who delivers all those presents varies greatly. In Germany he’s Kris Kringle, which comes from “Christkind” (Christ child, a golden-haired baby who delivers gifts in southern Germany). In England he’s been known as Father Christmas since the mid 1600’s.

In early America Santa was also called Kris Kringle, at least until Dutch settlers brought with them stories of St. Nicholas, whose name in Dutch is Sinterklaas which of course gradually changed to Santa Claus.

In France he’s known as Pere Noel (Father Christmas) and is accompanied around the eastern part of the country by Le Pere Fouettard (the Whipping Father), who is dressed in black and punishes the children who have misbehaved. In central Europe the bad guy is Krampus, a horned creature from folklore who also punishes the naughty kids.

But not all bad guys are irredeemable. There’s cold-heated Ebenezer Scrooge, who in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” is redeemed by the three spirits that visit him on Christmas Eve.

And there’s Dr. Seuss’s 1957 story about the Grinch, who has a change of heart (literally) about the true meaning of Christmas after stealing all of the Whos’ gifts only to hear them still sing cheerfully on Christmas morning.

Personally, I’m doing my best to not be a Grinch (grouchy person) this year — I’m tired of getting a lump of coal in my stocking.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

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