Advent to Christmas: what the words Christmas really mean

We take many Christmas words and traditions for granted. But do we really know what they mean? Broadcaster and Word Guru Kel Richards shines a spotlight on common Christmas words. *


“Advent” comes from a Latin word meaning “arrival” and is another name for the Christmas season. The word refers to the arrival of the Creator God on the planet (in the form of a human baby). This is why these little flip calendars are called “Advent calendars” and why Christmas is sometimes called “the Advent season”.

The day after Christmas

This strange name for December 26 comes from an old English tradition in which a box containing a gift was given to servants or the needy. Tradition demanded that the village squire and his family, on Boxing Day, pack up leftover Christmas food and treats and distribute them to the poor in the village.


“Carol” entered English in the 14e century of an old French word meaning “a happy song”. In fact, it meant such a bright, happy song that you could dance to it. Originally, and until around 16e century, many different songs were called Christmas carols. But in more recent centuries it has slowly specialized, and today only songs that celebrate Christmas are called Christmas carols.


The word “Christmas” first appears in something called the Chronicle in Old English almost a thousand years ago (in 1123 to be precise). He comes from late Old English expression Mæsse cristes. And that word in old English miss comes from a latin word miss a which dates back even further – to the fourth century (and hence we get our colloquial English word ‘rejection’).

At that time, church services were in Latin, which was the language of ordinary people in the Roman Empire at the time. They ended with this particular Latin word – essentially meaning “the church is over, you are fired” – although it was meant a little more politely than that.

Back when the word “Christmas” was coined about a thousand years ago, it literally meant “the religious service of Christ”.

And because it was the last word for church service, it became the name for church service. So the latin miss a (in old english miss) was the ancient word for a religious service.

In other words, when the word “Christmas” was coined about a thousand years ago, it literally meant “the religious service of Christ” – the religious service celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. .

So when you walk into the church at Christmas, what you do is keep a little history alive.

Santa Claus

The pot-bellied, cheerful image of Santa Claus appears to have been invented by American cartoonist Thomas Nast in a series of drawings he made for Harper’s Weekly over 20 years, from 1863. He says he based his drawings on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (see “Santa Claus”).

However, the title “Santa Claus” is much older than Nast’s drawings and may have started as a Christmas variation on “Father Time” – depicted as a bearded old man who sees the old year at the end of each December.


The habit of exchanging gifts at Christmas dates back to the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus and the gifts they brought him of gold, frankincense and myrrh.


“Nativity” is a word which means “birth”. It is used today to mean “the birth of Jesus Christ”. The word came into English from Old French in the 12th century (blame William the Conqueror and his French-speaking Normans for that).

And behind the old French word was a Latin word for “birth” from which we get our colloquial word “native” – ​​because “native” refers to your birth (if you were born in Australia then you are a ” native ”from Australia).


Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Lycia (modern Turkey) sometime before AD 350. Little is known of his life, but he was associated with kindness to children. For this reason, St. Nicholas Day (December 6) has become the traditional day for giving gifts to children in the Netherlands.

Santa Claus is just an adaptation of Sinter Klaas, the Dutch version of the name “Saint Nicholas”.

This custom was introduced to America by the early Dutch settlers, and Santa Claus is only an adaptation of Sinter Klaas, the Dutch version of the name “Saint Nicholas”.

It was popularized by a poem called “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, published in New York in 1823 – one that begins with the famous phrase “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”.

wise men

A few months after his birth, the infant Jesus received a visit from a group of wise men from the East. This expression translates the word ‘magi’, meaning mathematicians, astronomers and / or astrologers – roughly the old equivalent of scientists.

They were non-Jews or Gentiles, and their visit symbolizes that the arrival of Jesus was good news for everyone, everywhere – not just the people of Israel.

The exact number of these visitors is not stated in the Bible, but it is often assumed that there were three because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, myrrh).


“Yule” appears to come from an Old English word – possibly an old Anglican name for the period of December and January. This changed over time, and by the 10th century “Yule” was used for Christmas Day and for Christmas festivities in general. Therefore, the log that burned in the fireplace on Christmas Day was the “Yule Log”

* This article has been adapted with permission from Christmas words unwrapped by Kel Richards.

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