Top Ten: Words for the Christmas Season

TGIF, readers! For many of you, today was the last day of school or work before a holiday break. But that doesn’t mean that the learning has to stop! 😉

While I was doing my usual perusal of’s articles, which I thought was a totally normal thing to do until Jeremiah told me otherwise (I’m still not convinced), I noticed some festive entries too good not to share.

In particular, I was drawn to their slideshow, Crack the Christmas Code: Carols Demystified. It caught my eye for several reasons: First of all, earlier this week, several of my coworkers and I had the enjoyable experience of caroling for our annual Patient Christmas Party–more on that later, as it deserves a whole entry to itself. Secondly, as you already know, I am fascinated by etymology. I couldn’t keep this festively entertaining and educational list all to myself. Below, please enjoy my compilation of’s list of six Christmas Carol word explanations, followed by four seasonal terms from other articles on their site (which I will denote). And please visit throughout the next two weeks for more festive blog posts, perhaps between wrapping gifts and sipping on egg nog. 🙂

Ten Festive Words, and an Etymology in a Pear Tree

1. Wassail

[wos-uhl, -eyl, was-, wo-seyl]

“Here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green!” If you’ve ever heard a caroler sing this phrase and thought, “What the heck is a wassail?” you’re not alone! A wassail is a toast made to wish good health. From the Spanish salude to slainte in Irish Gaelic, many languages wish good health when glasses clink. Wassail is an Old English toast, adopted from the Old Norse ves heill meaning “be healthy!” In the 1600s the word became synonymous with carol singing, though it can still denote a hearty swig.

2. Wenceslaus


“Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen…” Good King WHO? Wenceslaus the First was a duke of what is now the Czech Republic. Sainted and dubbed “king” shortly after his death in 935, he was known for his piety and generosity to the poor. The carol “Good King Wenceslaus” is traditionally sung on Saint Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), which honors one of the earliest Catholic saints. The carol depicts a cold Saint Stephen’s night in which Wenceslaus journeys into the snow to help an old man.

3. Tidings


If you’ve ever been baffled by a caroler bringing you “tidings of comfort and joy,” your confusion ends here. Derived from the Old English tidan, meaning “to happen,” a tiding is a new piece of information or an announcement of an event. You can think of it as news rolling in on the tide. So whether your carolers come in on a surfboard or a sleigh, the correct response to “glad tidings” is “thank you.”

4. Figgy pudding

Have carolers ever camped out on your porch and demanded “figgy pudding” making threats like “we won’t go until we get some!” Don’t be alarmed. You’re not caught in a protest; it’s just Christmas. A distant cousin of the fruit cake, figgy pudding is a traditional fig-based cake common in England the 1600s. The carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” re-popularized the dessert in the 1900s, and now countless carolers ask for it every year.

5. Holly


Have you ever been instructed to “deck the halls with boughs of holly” and then looked up a decorator named Holly? Look no further. Holly is actually a tree with glossy green leaves, whitish flowers and red berries. From American Holly to English Holly, the “boughs” or branches of this tree are a traditional Christmas decoration. The word itself is a shortening of the Old English holegn for the same evergreen plant, which has represented rebirth on the European continent for centuries.

6. Yule tide


Confused by carolers yelling something about a “yule tide?” Fear not! As is the case with “tidings” the yule tide signifies the coming of the holiday season. Yule comes from the Old Norse word jol, relating to the pre-Christian winter feast. After the advent of Christianity, the term was adopted into Old English as geol to represent the Christmas season.

7. Xmas

The history of the word “Xmas” is actually more respectable — and fascinating — than you might suspect. First of all, the abbreviation predates by centuries its use in gaudy advertisements. It was first used in the mid 1500s. X is the Greek letter “chi,” the initial letter in the word Χριστός. And here’s the kicker: Χριστός means “Christ.” X has been an acceptable representation of the word “Christ” for hundreds of years. This device is known as a Christogram. The mas in Xmas is the Old English word for “mass.”  (The thought-provoking etymology of “mass” can be found here.) In the same vein, the dignified terms Xpian and Xtian have been used in place of the word “Christian.”

8. Magi


(This and the next two entries are from’s “Language of the Nativity” slideshow)

Though Jesus’ birth got off to a rough start, things definitely started looking up once the Magi arrived. Outside the Nativity story, Magi refers to a class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia, reputed to have supernatural powers. The word is thought to originate as moyu in the ancient Persian language Avestan. Within the Christmas story, the Bible depicts these Magi or “Wise Men of the East” as presenting gifts to the baby Jesus. But today magi can also mean astrologer.

9. Myrrh


Though the exact number of Magi present at the nativity is unknown, biblical scholars assume that there were three based on the number of gifts they brought. One of these was myrrh, a bitter-tasting resin gum made from small thorny trees of the genus Commiphora. Exodus 30:23 cites myrrh as a key ingredient in the holy anointing oil used to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests. Myrrh as a gift of the Magi symbolically anointed the infant Jesus as a religious leader.

10. Frankincense


From perfuming the sanctuary in Exodus 30:43-38 to aiding prayer in Revelations 8:4, frankincense makes numerous appearances in both the Old and New Testaments. What is it? Frankincense is a gum resin made from Boswellia trees native to Asia and Africa. It can be burned as incense or used directly on the skin as perfume. Etymologically, frankincense is from the Old French, franc- which means “noble or true” referring to the purity of the “incense” it describes.


Well, dear readers, I hope this list has left you enlightened you–in a “star of wonder” type of way. 😉

Best wishes to you in managing that elusive balance between insane busyness and holiday cheer. I hope you have many moments of peace, joy, and love this holiday season. Please join me throughout the next couple of weeks for more festive posts, including more lists, as well as reflections on what Christmas means to me.

4 thoughts on “Top Ten: Words for the Christmas Season

  1. Thank you Amanda for a very informative and often times funny lesson in what these words mean! It is very interesting to learn the meanings of words we often say, especially at the holiday times and now understand them better.


    • Thank YOU for your kind words! I’m glad you were able to learn something from the list; I know I sure did! It is kind of funny how we can say words all our lives without really knowing what they mean, isn’t it?
      Glad you enjoyed the post; thanks again! 🙂


  2. Pingback: Christmas Snow Globe: A Reflection on Christmas Blessings | Jelly-Side Up

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