Dec 23, 2015

Etymology Expeditions: The Christmas Edition

In the spirit of the season, I went for words that have to do with Christmas this week. Got your hot chocolate and candy cane ready? Ok, let's begin.

Christmas is pretty self-explanatory (from Christ, of course). It's a combination of Old English Cristes + mæsse, so Christ+mass. The word mass is actually quite interesting: it comes from Latin mittere "to let go, send," so a dismissal, probably from the last words of the Latin service Ite, missa est, meaning "Go, the prayer has been sent."

In Finnish Christmas is joulu, which sounds suspiciously close to Yule,which comes from Old English geol meaning Christmas Day. The origins of the word are in the Norse jol, a heathen feast taken over by christianity. So that's probably where we get joulu. We are a bunch of heathens here, you know. In Finland, the elements of a pagan celebration called kekri (a bit like Halloween) mixed with the Christmas traditions. That's why we're supposed to leave the Christmas feast out all night so the dead can come take their part, for example. Not that most English Christmas traditions are very christian, either. The Christmas tree,  gift giving, and mistletoe, all of pagan origin. Happy Saturnalia, suckers!  

Speaking of mistletoe, the sprig that killed the god Balder, its origins are in Old English mistiltan, from mistel "basil, mistletoe,"of unknown origin, + tan "twig." The custom of kissing under it came from the Victorian times, probably because of the associations with vitality and fertility. 

Twelfth Night comes from Old English twelftan niht, meaning the eve of Epiphany. (See last week's Twelve Days of Christmas post, if you're interested.)  Epiphany, the festival of the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, comes from the Old French epiphanie, from Latin epiphania, from Greek epiphaneia "manifestation, festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at a certain place." From epi "on"+ phainein "to show." In Finland, we just call it Loppiainen, like the end, ending. Pretty prosaic.

Santa Claus we all know comes from the Middle Dutch Sinter Niklaas (Saint Nicholas), but did you know that Santa has absorbed elements of the one-eyed god Wotan, associated with the Germanic midwinter celebration of Yule? He led the the wild hunt through the sky. Nice mental picture, that.

Okay, let's do something nice and safe next, like Gingerbread. It comes from Latin gingimbratus "gingered." Later, the ending changed by folk etymology to -brede, bread. The word dates from the 13th century, but the meaning of a spiced cookie is only from the 15th. I guess they just ate the candied ginger on its own before that?

Carolling comes from Old French carole "a joyful song, to dance in a ring," which comes from Greek khoraules "a flute player who accompanies the choral dance," from khoros "chorus"+ aulein "to play the flute," from aulos "reed instrument." The Christmas thing is from the 15th century.

I think that's enough for now. What's that? One more? Okay!

Here's a bonus: Krampus, an Austro-Bavarian Christmas devil that punishes misbehaving children. He's best buds with Saint Nick, of course. I couldn't find an etymology for the name, but I wonder if it has to do with kramen "to rummage about" or Krampf "convulsions," or maybe Kralle, "claw"? Any German readers out there? Do you know?
You can read more about Krampus here. Nightmares guaranteed.


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