A very OED Christmas
OED Consultant Editor Henry Hitchings unwraps the lexical history of Christmas with a little help from the Oxford English Dictionary. Read the full article here.
The noun Christmas, deriving from the Old English Cristes mæsse (the mass or festival of Christ), took hold only in the early twelfth century. In his book The Seasons, Nick Groom cites as the earliest description of an English Christmas a section of the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which pictures the seasonal revelry at King Arthur’s court in Camelot. Before the word established itself, the festival was known as midwinter or yule. Both were names for not only Christmas Day itself, but also the period surrounding it.
Midwinter, yule, and noel
Midwinter now tends to be used in the latter, less specific way, and if it denotes a single date it is either 21 or 22 December in the northern hemisphere and either 21 or 22 June in the southern. The OED notes that yule (from the Old English geól, and ultimately Scandinavian in origin) has since around 1850 been a literary archaism — as in Tennyson’s nostalgic line about ‘the merry, merry bells of Yule’. The entry for yule includes many items now obscure, such as yule-girth (‘the peace of Christmas’) and yule-work (‘preparations for Christmas festivities’). A more enduring item is yule-log; although the OED’s first attestation dates from less than 300 years ago, the burning on the Christmas hearth of a specially chosen log is a Nordic tradition of very long standing, and it continues, though today’s yule log often takes the rather abbreviated form of a decadent chocolate dessert.
Christmas has gone by other names, such as Nowell. Originally a word shouted or sung by those marking the festival, this was from the fifteenth century a name for the feast itself. The similar noel has since the eighteenth century denoted a Christmas carol, and since the twelfth century has been a given name — chosen for Christmas babies (Coward, Edmonds), though selected by some parents without reference to its seasonal associations (Gallagher, Fielding).
Father Christmas and Santa Claus
The urge to personify Christmas was manifest at least as early as the sixteenth century. He appears in a masque by Ben Jonson in 1616, complete with a long beard and truncheon. The OED’s first evidence for the name Father Christmas is in 1646; Santa Claus, introduced into America by seventeenth-century Dutch settlers, is traced back as far as 1773, when he was mentioned in the New York Gazette (in the form St. A Claus).
The modern image of Father Christmas is a nineteenth-century one, as in Thomas Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1836), where an illustration shows him in the sort of furry robe later popularized (and turned bright red) by the American cartoonist Thomas Nast. It was in the Victorian period that Father Christmas came to be linked with gift-giving, and this, like so many of the season’s accoutrements, was an association developed by the burgeoning illustrated press. Publications such as Punch (founded in 1841) and the Illustrated London News (1842) created what’s now a wholly familiar iconography, complete with holly, mince pies, and crackers.
The Christmas tree phenomenon
The custom of displaying a highly decorated tree in the home was also popularized at this time. Credit for its introduction to Britain usually goes to Prince Albert, who in 1841 erected such a tree at Windsor Castle, though Queen Victoria’s grandmother Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of George III, had arranged for one to be put up there forty years earlier. Although Christmas tree itself isn’t attested until 1835, the OED records an earlier description of the phenomenon dating from 1789, which identifies as a novelty a family’s having ‘an illuminated tree according to the German fashion’. Another citation, from the Illustrated London News in 1848, testifies to the influence on the public of images showing ‘Christmas Festivities at Windsor’, at which ‘the sideboards were surmounted with stately “Christmas Trees”, glittering with pendant bonbons, etc.’. In 1869, William Hazlitt expressed a little surprise at the fashion’s catching on: ‘the Christmas-tree … came to us from Germany directly… and is still a flourishing institution among us.’
Charles Dickens and Christmas
It was Charles Dickens who best evoked the Victorian Christmas — its warmth, its focus on family, and its spirit of charity. Like many of his contemporaries, he at first treated Christmas sentimentally and nostalgically. But with the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, he struck a different note. The historian Ronald Hutton describes this story as ‘a passionate avowal of how the festival ought to be kept’, which ‘succeeded in turning Christmas celebration into a moral reply to avarice, selfishness and greed’. As Hutton explains, A Christmas Carol ‘linked the new prosperity of the age with its social unease, and put the middle classes in the vortex of both, equipped with a feast which employed the former to allay the latter’.
Yuletide paraphernalia and Christmas cards
The same year that Dickens’s novella appeared, civil servant Henry Cole, who would go on to be the founding director of what’s now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, sent the first commercially produced Christmas card. Designed by John Callcott Horsley, it depicted three generations of Cole’s family; a thousand copies were printed, for sale at a shilling apiece. The price deterred purchasers, but by the 1870s the phenomenon had caught on, and illustrators chose from an established repertoire of religious images (angels, the Three Wise Men, Jesus with his mother Mary) and secular ones (mistletoe, robins, wholesome children, an abundance of food). The OED’s first citation, dated 1883, comes from one of John Ruskin’s morally instructive letters addressed to Britain’s workers: Ruskin pictures an impatient mother abandoning her sluggish child in the snow and comments, ‘There is a Christmas card, with a picture of English “nativity” for you.’
Other yuletide paraphernalia for which the OED’s first citations are Victorian include Christmas pudding (1858) and the seasonally appropriate Christmas book (1875), as well as panettone (attested, perhaps surprisingly, as early as 1841). The first citation for pantomime that specifically associates it with Christmas dates from 1848, and a newspaper report in 1892 reflects that ‘The pantomime has gradually interwoven itself into our recognized Christmas festivities, so as to become an essential part of them.’
A variety of Christmas customs
The OED testifies to the variety of Christmas customs: the boy bishop who parodies a bishop’s role during the festive period, the tradition of drinking to the health of apple trees (mentioned under wassail), and the Christingle presentation to a child of a lit candle set in an orange. Some of these traditions are highly localized. In Orkney, a Christmas entertainment put on by tenants for their landlords is a bummock — the word probably comes from Old Norse — and in parts of Kent one can still see a hoden horse, a wooden head with clapping jaws that’s paraded during a Christmas masquerade. Where such customs survive, they feel like a rebuke to commerce and its homogenizing effects — evidence of the season’s plurality.