From Advent to Yule: The Origins of 8 Classic Christmas Words

2 min read

The holidays are here, and it’s time to start counting down the days on the advent calendar and lighting the yule log. Have you ever wondered how words like “poinsettia” and “fruitcake” entered the holiday lexicon? We’ll explain the origins of these festive terms, and help you spread a little more holiday cheer and knowledge.


Waiting can be the hardest yet most exciting part — at least around the holidays. The term for the season leading up to Christmas comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “a coming, approach, or arrival.” In religious terms, it refers to “the coming of the savior,” but in the 1700s, the word took on a different meaning. Today, “advent” can mean any noteworthy arrival.


This holiday term breaks down pretty simply — it’s a combination of the phrase “Christ’s mass.” Jesus is sometimes referred to as “Christ,” the Greek word for the Hebrew term “Messiah,” which means “anointed one.” In Middle English, “Christenmas” or “Christian mass” would have also been used.

Santa Claus

The big guy in the red suit goes by many names — St. Nick, Kris Kringle, or Father Christmas — but the most famous name in America is Santa Claus. The legend is based on a Christian figure named St. Nicholas. In Dutch, he was referred to as Sinter Klaas, and the Americanized version sprung from that. With the rise of shopping malls and gift-giving in the 1800s and 1900s, the myth (and name) of Santa Claus only grew in popularity.  


Oh, here we come a-wassailing! “Wassail” is a spiced alcoholic beverage enjoyed during Christmas celebrations. The term comes from an Old Norse phrase, ves heill, which dates back to the 12th century and translates to “be in good health.” The practice of going door-to-door “wassailing” (caroling and generally having a good time) began in the 1700s.


The term for a cake made of nuts and candied fruits dates back to the 1830s. With a reputation for not being the freshest treat, we don’t doubt there’s an actual fruitcake being regifted from the 1830s.


This beautiful red-leafed floral got its name from the U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the 1830s. Joel Roberts Poinsett was a botanist who started shipping these scarlet florals back to his home in South Carolina. Before being called poinsettias, they were known as “Mexican flame flowers.”


The name for Santa’s helpers comes from the Old English word ælf. Similar terms in Old Norse and Germanic languages translate to “evil spirit.” That’s because elves were often thought of as magical tricksters. Christmas elves, which became popularized in the late 1800s, are much handier to have around when it’s time to make presents.


In Old Norse mythology, jol is a pre-Christian feast involving the god Odin. Later, the term would be used to refer to the 12-day celebration after Christmas. In the 17th century, folks started referring to the “yule log ” —a unique piece of firewood burnt at Christmas — for the first time.

Featured image credit: ArtistGNDphotography/ iStock

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