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The Christmas Customs FAQ

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

1. What does the word "Noel" mean?

There are two schools of thought on this. Some believe that the word comes from the Latin natalis (birthday) and refers to Jesus' birthday. Others believe that it derives from the French nouvelles (news), and so refers to the good news (the Gospel) of Christ's birth, which the angels announced on the first Christmas when Christ was born. The second meaning seems to be the way the word is used in most carols, such as the "First Noel," that is, the first proclamation of the good news.
 

2. What does the word "Yule" mean?

The best explanation is that the word comes from Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast). Since in preChristian times, one of the great feasts was the celebration of the winter solstice, the whole month of December was called geola (feast month). It was probably later applied to the feast of Christmas. Others believe that yule comes from the Old Germanic word Jol, meaning a turning wheel referring to the "sun wheel" rising after the winter solstice.
 

3. What is the origin of the word "Xmas"?

Unbeknownst to many, the word "xmas" was not invented by carnal merchants trying to commercialize Christmas. The word is actually an old English one. The "x" in Christmas is the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter in the Greek word for "Christ." Thus, "xmas" is simply a shortened version of "Christmas."

 

4. What is the origin of the word "carol"?

The word "carol" comes from the Greek word choraulein (chorus, the dance; aulein, to play the flute) which referred to a dance accompanied by a flute. The Romans brought this custom to England. In medieval England, the carol meant a ring dance accompanied by singing. Gradually the meaning of the word changed, so that it referred only to the song itself.
 

5. Where does the custom of giving gifts at Christmas come from?

Many trace the custom of gift-giving to the old Roman custom called strenae. On New Year's Day the people of ancient Rome exchanged gifts, as tokens of "good luck" for a happy year. This custom has been preserved among the French. This custom probably influenced the Christmas celebration -- though there is no direct evidence to support this. Another influence may have been the custom of exchanging gifts at the Feast of St. Nicholas (on Dec. 6) and St. Martin. It is also possible that the gifts the Magi gave to Christ (Matthew 2) inspired the custom of Christmas gift giving.
 

6. Why are mistletoe, holly, and evergreen branches used at Christmas?

We know that these things were all used by the ancient Romans during their New Year's celebrations. These plants were used during winter time because of the fact that the remained green or in the case of mistletoe and holly, even bloomed in the winter. This reminded the Romans, as it did other ancient peoples, of returning life in the dead of winter. The Roman author Pliny also claimed that the ancient Druids believed mistletoe to have healing properties. According to Francis Weiser, the mistletoe was considered so sacred that if even enemies happened to meet beneath a mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down arms and exchange a friendly greeting and keep a truce to the following day. From this, he believes, arose the custom of hanging mistletoe over a doorway as a token of peace and good will to all comers.
 

7. When did Christmas cards get started?

It is claimed that the first Christmas card was engraved by a sixteen year old London artist, William Maw Egley in 1842. It wasn't until 1860 that the cards were being sold on the market; they were quite common by 1868. The printing of Christmas cards in America was first done by Boston lithographer Louis Prang in 1875.
 

8. When did Christmas pageants get started?

Christmas pageants, plays that depict the birth of Christ, probably go back to the mystery plays of the late Middle Ages. The first children's pageant was held in 1851 in the German Catholic church of the Holy Trinity in Boston. Children dressed as shepherds carried presents to the manger at the front of the church to present them to the Christ Child, singing carols. They then left the church after the pageant marching out in solemn procession. This performance attracted such attention from Bostonians that the pageant was performed twice during Christmas week.
 

9. When did the custom of placing lights in the windows of homes begin?

This is an Irish custom that found its way to this country. In the latter half of the nineteenth century carolers promoted this in the Beacon Hill section of Boston. In time the custom spread to other cities and parts of the country. It still appears to be most popular in New England, however.
 

10. When did the poinsettia plant first become used at Christmas?

This native plant of Central America was named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, United States ambassador to Mexico, because he brought the flower back to his home in South Carolina in 1829, where it flourished. According to many, the flaming star reminds them of the star of Bethlehem. The people of Mexico call the poinsettia the "flower of the Holy Night."
 

11. What is wassail?

It is a drink that originated with the English. The old Saxon word "wassail" was originally a drinker's greeting: "Was Haile" "Your health." The wassail drink was made from ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. It was served hot from a bowl. Later the word "wassailing" was used by the English for any kind of Christmas celebration where drinking occurred.
 

12. What are the twelve days of Christmas all about?

This refers to the period of twelve days between Christmas (Dec. 25) and the Epiphany (Jan. 6), which forms the Christmas season proper, according to the Church liturgical calendar. The first record we have of this twelve days being recognized as a Christian festival is found in the Church father, Ephraeum Syrus, at the end of the fourth century. It was later officially declared to be a sacred season by the Council of Tours in 567.


Sources
 

Dawson, W.F., Christmas: Its Origins and Associations (London: Paternoster Row, E.C., 1902).
 

Miles, Clement A., Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912).

Weiser, Francis X., Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958).