From World War I fairly lights to Crimbo: The real meaning of Christmas customs

| 18 December 2014

Maligned baubles, cakes shaped like babies and Boxing Day: what does Christmas really mean?

A photo of a golden Christmas cracker on a table in front of a glass of wine and candle
Christmas crackers used to explode with sweets
Christmas carols were originally ring-dances. Mince pies didn’t become small and sweet until the start of the 17th century. And Christmas crackers once brimmed with colourful sweets.

Crackers erupted, according to the University of Leicester, “like a modern-day piñata” upon being pulled, creating a triumphant marketing campaign for London sweetmaker Tom Smith, whose Christmas hit made its way onto festive dinner tables across the country and the world.

Issuing an interpreted list of words and meanings which reveals how Christmas has evolved since Anglo-Saxon times, Julie Coleman, the head of the university’s School of English, says modern-day celebrations are “wrapped in layers” of customs from Christmas past.

A photo of a decorated Christmas tree inside a museum
The Christmas tree was first recorded in 1835
Crackers – the work of Victorian designers during the 1840s – contained sweets in tubes, pressured to create an exciting bang.

Coleman suggests the tale of the bauble as perhaps the most surprising. First found in the dictionary in 1320, they were originally “trinkets” or “ornaments”, carrying negative connotations of showiness and worthiness usually associated with children, jesters and people impressed by “shiny tat”.

Their modern makers might settle for the bauble’s relatively kind perception as a harmless decoration.

Christmas words and the truth behind them

Yule
The oldest word for Christmas originally referred to the months of December or January, but by the tenth century clearly referred to the celebration of Christ’s birth. The corresponding word in Old Norse, jól, refers to a pre-Christian winter celebration lasting 12 days. Anglo-Saxons also referred to Christmas as yule-day, midwinter and midwinter day or tide.

Nativity
Borrowed from French shortly after the Norman Conquest as a new name for Christmas. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation refers to a festivity held by King Henry at Windsor – suggesting that, like many French loans from this period, it was a bit posh.

Christmas
Appears in the form Christ’s mass during the 12th century, and appears to have a single word by the beginning of the 15th century. The abbreviated Xmas, with the cross representing Christ, is first recorded in the middle of the 18th century. Other familiar forms include Crimbo (from 1928) and Crimble (from 1963).

Noel
Also derived from a word relating to birth, ultimately from Latin natalis, ‘relating to a birth or birthday’. From Latin it was used in French as a cry of celebration in response to a birth, and this use is found in English slightly before the meaning ‘Christmas’. Both date from around 1400.

Boxing day
First recorded in 1833. It used to be the first weekday after Christmas, on which servants received their Christmas box (originally a clay box containing money, and later the money itself). The original dictionary editors appear to have disapproved of tipping at Christmas, defining Christmas box as “usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.

Wassail
A toast meaning ‘be hail (healthy)’ became associated with Christmas from the 14th century, referring to spiced wine and customs associated with it. The red-coated present-bearer has been known by a variety of names in English: Father Christmas (1658), Santa Claus (1773), Kriss Kringle (1830), and Santa (1913).

Baby-cake
A cake shaped like a baby that was eaten at Christmas from the 17th century.

Christmas tree
First recorded from 1835. Although English people were following the German tradition in decorating trees at Christmas before this (since at least 1789), it was several decades before they were given an English name.

Fairly lights
When it was first used, during the early 18th century, fairy light referred to will-o-the-wisps: phosphorescent lights produced by marshy ground. During the early 19th century, candles stood in for fairy lights in a garden, and by the mid-19th century candle fairy lights were a familiar sight in Christmas trees. During the First World War very lights were flares named after their inventor, Edward Very. Many slang terms from the trenches downplay the fear and danger of the war, so it is entirely characteristic that soldiers called them fairy lights.

Stockings have had special associations with Christmas since 1853. Advent calendars date from 1867.

Christmas pantomime
Another Victorian invention, building on other types of theatrical performance called by the same name since the early 17th century. The word consists of two roots, ultimately from Greek: panto- ‘all’ and mime ‘a farcical drama’.

Tinsel
Originally referred to a cloth interwoven with metallic thread to create a sparkling effect. This sense is recorded in the OED from 1527, but our current sense either wasn’t known to OED-editors in 1912 - when the entry was last updated - or wasn’t considered frequent enough to merit recording.

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