The origins of Christmas words
Mistletoe encounters can be very hit-or-miss. My own experiences usually involve kissing a definite non-target rather than the person I’d been lingering beneath the foliage for. It was therefore with some satisfaction that I discovered that the literal meaning of mistletoe is ‘dung-on-a-twig’, the inspiration of the Anglo-Saxons who realized that the plant is fertilized by the droppings of foraging birds (looking for berries rather than kisses). A truly unromantic beginning for a plant that came to be seen as the bearer of the male ‘essence’, with the power to bestow virility as well as no end of passion. But the mistletoe’s story is just one of many curiosities behind the words that decorate the Christmas lexicon.
From mistletoe to merrymaking
The most important Christmas theme for many has to be food (and drink). An old Italian proverb urges that we ‘speak the way you eat’. As far as English goes, we’ve been doing that for centuries. Hundreds of everyday words and expressions go straight back to food, such as shambles (once a bloody butcher’s table), lord and lady (loaf-keeper and loaf-kneader respectively), and companion (bread-sharer). One of the more obvious examples is punch-drunk, something many of us might expect to be at our office party if we take things too literally. The concoction we drink today has come a long way, both in taste and geography. The Sanskrit word punch was one of many carried back from the exotic east in the 17th century – it means ‘the five nectars of the gods’, referring to the traditional five ingredients of milk, curd, butter, honey, and molasses (and absolutely no paint-stripper).
As far as alcohol goes, most of us will raise a toast this Christmas. In the 12th century, the quality of the wine and ale on offer was so unpredictable that it became common practice to dip spiced toast into alcoholic drinks to draw out or mask any bad flavours. This tradition carried on for centuries, until the quality of the drink improved and the idea of raising a toast to a special member of a party emerged, drawing on the idea that the guest was like a figurative piece of toast that improved the flavour of the drink.
Songs and jollifications
Some of us might also go carousing as well as wassailing. The first has its origins in medieval German drinking bouts. When drinking to someone’s health, or celebrating a great event or victory, the guests would fill their glasses full to the brim and encourage each other to gar austrinken – drink down the contents ‘to the very last drop’; we swapped gar aus for ‘carouse’. As for wassail, that goes back to the Old English toast ‘be fortunate’, to which the standard reply was ‘drink-hail’, ‘drink to good health’.
To be jolly at Yuletide is more than an expectation – the two words may be linked in language, too. At their heart is the Norse word jo´l, a pagan festival at the winter solstice that lasted for a full twelve days. Meanwhile a traditional Scots dish was Yule brose, the seasonal version of porridge in which the juices from boiled meat were poured over oats (I think I’ll pass). One tradition involved dropping a ring into the communal bowl of Yule brose; superstition held that whoever found it in their spoon would be the first to achieve marital bliss (I think I’ll still pass).
Puddings and pear trees
The prince of the Christmas plate is the chipolata: a word believed to derive from the Italian cipollata, ‘made with onions’, referring to a sausage and onion stew. Sausages are also behind the original meaning of pudding; their link with our modern, flaming, Christmas version is the idea of putting a filling into a casing or tying ingredients up in a bag and cooking them. However glorious it may taste, pudding, thanks to its Latin root botellus ‘sausage or small intestine’, shares its story with ‘botulism’ too.
On a lighter note, you might opt for the cascade of meringue and fruit that is pavlova instead of pudding. Anna Pavlova was a Russian ballerina who became world-famous for her solo dance The Dying Swan. Her tour of Australia and New Zealand inspired chefs to commemorate her in a dessert. The first recorded pavlova was composed of coloured layers of jelly made in a mould that resembled a ballerina’s tutu.
‘…and a partridge in a pear tree.’ I hate to finish where I started, on another unromantic note, but partridge looks back to the French verb péter, to break wind. The whirring sound of the birds’ wings seems to have inspired a strange comparison in the mind of the Romans. Mind you, their December celebrations of Saturnalia sound a lot of fun, judging by the account of the poet Lucian of Samosata: ‘…the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping – such are the functions over which I preside.’ If you manage even a few of those, Merry Christmas – and may your mistletoe moments be fruitful.