'Wassail', 'Yule', and More: The Stories Behind 8 Holiday Words

Happy holidays!


This season, you might hear (or sing yourself) the Christmas carol that begins, "Here we come a-wassailing / among the leaves so green." As is holiday tradition, you will wonder: what in the world is "a-wassailing" and why is it happening among green leaves in the dead of winter? And what about that refrain?

Love and joy come to you
And to you good wassail too...

Wassailing is an old custom that goes back to the 1300s. The verb wassail derives from the noun wassail, which dates to the 1200s and was first used to refer to an Old English custom of hospitality. In medieval England, a courteous host would offer a cup to a guest and toast them with wæs hæil, or "be in good health." The guest would accept the cup and respond with drinc hæil, "drink in good health." This custom, and the word wassail, were both adopted by the English from the Nordic Vikings: waes haeil is from the Old Norse ves heill, "be in good health."

In short order, wassail was also applied to the party at which the wassail was offered, as well as the actual drink passed around. By the 1500s, it was used to refer specifically to a drink served at Christmastime (and especially on Twelfth Night):

ITEM, as for the voide on twelfth day at night, the King and Queene ought to take it in the halle; and as for the wassell, the steward and treasurer shall come for it with their staves in their hands... and when the steward cometh in at the halle door with the wassell, he must crie three tymes, Wassell, wassell, wassell...
—"Articles Ordained by King Henry VII for the Regulation of His Household, 31 Dec. 1494" in A Collection of Ordinances and Regulations Made for the Government of the Royal Household, 1790

Wassailing, then, originally referred to "keeping wassail": gathering together and drinking each other's health. As the drink became associated with Christmas, wassailing itself changed. The meaning of the verb wassail as it shows up in the carol refers to going around, caroling, and wishing those you visit good health, and excellent wassail, or holiday parties.

(The carol is much newer than wassailing: it was written in the mid-1800s.)

The Jewish festival of lights is set up by some as the Jewish counterpart to Christmas, but the origin point for Hanukkah has as little to do with gifts and dreidels as Christmas has to do with reindeer and Santa. This holiday marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by a foreign intruder and specifically the miracle God gave the Jews by keeping the menorah (required in worship) burning for eight days with only one day's worth of oil. A candle is lit in the menorah each of the eight nights of the holiday to commemorate the miracle, and the name for the holiday comes from the Hebrew word that means "dedication."

A great story—but let's get down to brass tacks. You've likely seen the holiday referred to as Hanukkah or Chanukah or Hanukah. Which one is right?

All of them (and more). Or none of them. The difficulty arises from the fact that the name for the holiday is Hebrew. As you likely know, Hebrew isn't written using Latin characters, which means that the Hebrew name for the holiday—חֲנֻכָּה‎‎—has to be transliterated. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the Hebrew word used sounds that we normally associate with the Latin alphabet, but it's doesn't. The holiday's name starts with chet or ḥet, a Hebrew letter whose sound is like the -ch in the Scottish word loch, or the German word Buch. There's no good one-to-one match between the sound the Hebrew letter makes and the sound that any English letters make. When the Hebrew word was transliterated into English in the 1600s, that initial sound was represented by ch- (Chanukah). But the English ch has a very different sound when it starts a word than the Hebrew ḥet does: think of the words chive and Charles. So the holiday began to be spelled with an initial H- in the 1700s: Hanukkah. But that also doesn't convey the sound of the Hebrew ḥet well. There are similar problems with the Hebrew letter kaf that appears in the middle of the word: while it sounds like /k/, in English that sound can be represented by either the letter k or the letter c.

This state of affairs meant that English variations on the holiday's name proliferated. In fact, the historical Oxford English Dictionary shows 24 variant spellings for Hanukkah (Chanucha, Chanuchah, Hanuca, Hanucka, Chanuca, Chanucah, Chanucca, Chanuccah, Chanuka, Chanukah, Chanukka, Chanukkah, Hanucah, Hanucca, Hanuccah, Hanucha, Hanuckah, Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanukka, Hanukkah, Khanukah, Khanukka, and Khanukkah). Our evidence shows that the most common of these currently is Hanukkah, though it's also not uncommon to see Chanukah and Hanukah in print.

A usage tip: do not confuse Hanukkah with Hamukkah.

Another holiday whose spelling often confuses is Kwanzaa. The holiday is celebrated by African Americans between December 26 and January 1, and is patterned after African harvest festivals. It was first celebrated in 1966 by its founder, Maulana Karenga, who took its name from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza (“first fruits”). Each day is dedicated to one of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The home is decorated with objects that tie the celebrants to African traditions: the mkeka, which is a woven mat; the mazao, or a bowl of fruits that signify the community's work; and the kinara, a seven-branched candelabra in which one candle is lit each night to represent the seven principles. Gifts are often exchanged on the last day, and on December 31 community members gather for a feast, the karamu.

You'll notice that the holiday takes its name (Kwanzaa) from the Swahili word kwanza, and you'll also notice that the holiday's name has an extra -a in it. Why? The founder of Kwanzaa explains:

Kwanzaa's extra "a" evolved as a result of a particular history of the Organization Us. It was done as an expression of African values in order to inspire the creativity of our children. In the early days of Us, there were seven children who each wanted to represent a letter of Kwanzaa. Since kwanza (first) has only six letters, we added an extra "a" to make it seven, thus creating "Kwanzaa."

Before there was Christmas, there was Yule—or, rather, before there was Christmas, there was Yule. The word yule is older than the word Christmas by several hundred years.

Yule comes ultimately from an Old English word geōl. The Old English word, and its etymological cousin from Old Norse (jōl) were both likely used to refer to a midwinter pagan festival that took place in December. But once the British Isles were Christianized, the Anglo-Saxons used geōl to refer to the other big festival that happened in December and January: Christmastide.

As Christianity came to prominence in England, so too did the "Christmas" meaning of yule. The word shows up today mostly in carols, and in combinations like yule log and yuletide.

The more common name for the holiday, Christmas, came about in the 1100s and literally means "Christ's mass" (that is, the liturgical celebration of Christ and his nativity).

If you happen to be in the UK or in a Commonwealth nation, then the Christmas season isn’t complete without Boxing Day.

This holiday, usually celebrated on December 26, has nothing to do with the sport, nor with recycling all the wrapping paper from the Christmas presents. On Boxing Day, Christmas boxes are traditionally given to postal workers and other service workers. The holiday has been around since the 1600s: churches would put out boxes for donations for the poor, and servants (who usually got the day after Christmas off to spend with their own families) were often given a box of food and gifts to take home. Samuel Pepys complains of the expense of these boxes in a 1668 diary entry, though the name of the holiday itself dates to the 1700s:

Chrismass [sic] Gambols, representing the Humours of Christmas and Boxing Day, in two Plates neatly Engrav'd.
General Advertiser, 25 Dec. 1747

Traditionally, Boxing Day is associated with fox hunting in the UK, though the sport was banned in 2004. Nowadays, more people turn out for a different sort of hunt: Boxing Day sales are the new national sport.

Here in the U.S. you can't have Christmas without the fat man in the red suit: Santa Claus. Logically, then, the word Santa Claus should go back as far as the word for the holiday, Christmas. Unfortunately, this is English, and your logic doesn't work here.

The name Santa Claus was first used nearly 600 years after Christmas showed up on the scene, sometime in the 1700s. One of our earliest references for the name gives up the origins of the word: an article in a New York newspaper notes that a Dutch group called the Sons of St. Nicholas gathered to celebrate the anniversary of their patron saint, "otherwise called St. A Claus." How did we get Santa Claus from Saint Nicholas? The Dutch name for St. Nick is Sint Nikolaas: that was shortened into Sinterklaas, which the Dutch brought to America and adapted into Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas was a 3rd-century saint from Myra in modern-day Turkey who purportedly performed a number of good deeds and miracles for children. His most famous good deed is providing dowries for three poor girls who were about to be sold into prostitution; he saved them by throwing a bag of gold in through their family’s window. He became the patron saint of children, and his feast day, December 6, was considered a lucky day to make large purchases or get married. His popularity remained high even through the iconoclastic Protestant Reformation, and he was a particular favorite of the Dutch. In many European countries, his feast day is still celebrated as a time to give gifts to children.

We’ve accounted for two names for the fat man in the red suit (Santa Claus and St. Nick), but how do you explain Kriss Kringle, another of Santa’s names?. Kriss Kringle came into English from the German Christkindl, which means “Christmas gift” and “Christ child,” and as might be expected, it had a variety of spellings when it first came into English in the early 1800s. One early use of the word in print explains how the Christ child came to be associated with Jolly Old St. Nick:

"Belsh Nichel,” in high German, expresses “Nicholas in his fur,” or sheep-skin clothing. He is always supposed to bring good things at night to good children, and a rod for those who are bad. Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights, and his amusements also when a father, at seeing how his own children expressed their feelings on their expectations of gifts from the mysterious visiter!
— John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in Olden Time, 1830

("Belsh Nickel" here is Belsnickel, which fans of the US TV show "The Office" may remember.)

The modern Kris Kringle doesn’t bother with the rod for naughty children—it’s universally understood that, come Christmas, all children are good children.

Except when they aren’t, and that’s why there’s Krampus.

Krampus, for those who aren’t familiar, is the evil foil to Jolly Old St. Nick. With horns and claws, and carrying a sack and a bundle of sticks, he visits German children on December 5th, the night before St. Nicholas does. If a child has been naughty, Krampus will smack them with his bundle of sticks, and then stuff them in his sack to take down to the underworld.

The legend of Krampus originated in Germany and Austria hundreds of years ago, and Krampus was commercialized in the late 1890s with German and Austrian postcards often emblazoned with a cheerful Gruss vom Krampus! (“Greetings from Krampus!”) and showing Krampus hauling naughty children away. The name Krampus appears to be from the German word krampen, which means “claw.”

Though Krampus-fever has taken over parts of America (due in no small part to the 2015 Christmas horror flick called “Krampus”) and the word is still relatively new to many people, the tradition was known in America back to the 1800s. We have evidence of Krampus in English-language newspapers back to the 1870s, and some earlier use of Krampus in German-language newspapers that were published in America.

Festivus
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There are those who eschew the more traditional December holidays as too religious, too commercial, too too. They have found solace and fellowship in the modern made-up replacement: Festivus.

Festivus first made its public appearance in a 1997 episode of the hit TV show “Seinfeld”:

FRANK CONSTANZA: Kramer, I got your message. I haven't celebrated Festivus in years! What is your interest?
KRAMER: Well, just tell me everything, huh?
FRANK: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reach for the last one they had—but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way!
KRAMER: What happened to the doll?
FRANK: It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born. "A Festivus for the rest of us!"
— "The Strike," aired 18 Dec. 1997

The Festivus traditions founded by George’s father involve the Festivus pole, a plain aluminum pole that is unadorned because Frank “finds tinsel distracting”; a meal marked by the Airing of Grievances, in which celebrants explain how their family disappointed them this year; and the Feats of Strength, where the head of the household chooses a family member to wrestle (and if the head of the household is properly pinned, Festivus is over). The "Seinfeld" episode also mentions two Festivus miracles—or, rather, anti-miracles, since they involve inviting to dinner two guests that one character wanted to avoid, and making another character’s girlfriend think he was cheating on her.

According to Dan O’Keefe, “Seinfeld” writer, Festivus was actually invented by his father Daniel O’Keefe in the 1960s. The name, the elder O’Keefe said, just “popped into his head,” and it was, according to son Dan, celebrated anywhere between October and May. Sadly, the O’Keefe Festivus celebrations did not involve a Festivus pole or the Feats of Strength. There was the Airing of Grievances, though Dan notes that the airing was done into a tape recorder, and was primarily about the various indignities each family member had suffered in their respective domains. No Festivus pole, either, though the elder O’Keefe made up for that with the Festivus Clock:

The real symbol of the holiday was a clock my dad put in a bag and nailed to the wall every year. I don't know why. I don't know what it means; he would never tell me. He would always say, “That's not for you to know.”
— Dan O’Keefe on CNN, 24 Dec. 2013

Dan was ambivalent about sharing this family holiday with the world. In that same CNN interview, he says

Actually I didn't want to put it on TV. It was sort of a family disgrace, and then my younger brother let it slip that this went on, so the other writers and Jerry [Seinfeld] said, yeah, “we'd like to give this to America.” I said I don't think America wants it at all or should have it, but they prevailed upon me and now the chickens have come home to roost.

Festivus bless us, every one.




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