Fascinating Origins of 5 Holiday Words


Happy holidays! It’s once again time to chill with the family, munch on good food, and celebrate! Here’s a bit of holiday word etymology to enlighten your family and friends with at your next festive feast.  


In the singing mood? This word originally referred to pagans’ celebratory circle dances and the songs that fueled them, according to Merriam-Webster. As centuries passed, Christians claimed the term, which the Oxford Living Dictionary traces to the Old French word carole and currently defines as “a religious folk song or popular hymn, particularly one associated with Christmas.”

Auld Lang Syne

Ok, so this isn’t a word, but it’s definitely a famous New Year’s Eve phrase! When poet Robert Burns sent the poem “Auld Lang Syne” to the Scots Musical Museum in 1788, he indicated the verses were the lyrics to an ancient song, but claimed credit as the first to record the words on paper, according to Scotland Is Now. Roughly translated, the tune’s title means “for old times’ sake” and, it’s now sung by people both in and out of its native Scotland to remember the past while ringing in a new year.


The name for this holiday celebrating African-American culture is properly spelled with or without the second “a” and comes from “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Kwanzaa is always celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, with each day dedicated to Nguzo Saba, also known as the seven principles—Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). Though Maulana Karenga, the professor who created the holiday in 1966, envisioned Kwanzaa as a way for African-American families to come together and celebrate their ancestral roots, anyone can celebrate it and the principles behind it.


This term was originally used only for the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple’s menorah is one of the oldest symbols in Jewish faith. Today’s Hanukkah menorahs, or “hanukkiah,” have nine branches to commemorate an ancient miracle. Over 2,000 years ago, Jewish rebels fought for freedom from a tyrant king who forced them to worship Greek gods. After winning and reclaiming the Temple, they discovered there was only enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one day. However, the menorah miraculously stayed lit long enough for them to make more oil to keep the eternal flame going.


This decorative Christmas cutting takes its name from the term mistel and tān. Mistrel was itself once used to refer to the mistletoe shrub. Tān is Old English meaning twig and dropped the “n” over the centuries as people mixed it up it with another tān—the plural for the modern word “toe.” According to Merriam-Webster, mistel is thought to come from the even earlier word “mist,” the Germanic word for dung, which makes sense since bird droppings are how the shrubs’ seeds were spread. Kind of makes the thought of getting caught under the mistletoe less appealing, right?



Create references like the ones below in MLA citation format for free, or in APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and thousands of others styles with EasyBib Plus.

“9 Christmas Words with Surprising Histories.” Words at Play, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/christmas-word-origins.

“Carol.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/carol.

“The History and Words of Auld Lang Syne.” #ScotlandisNow, Scottish Government Information Commissioner’s Office, 7 Feb. 2017, www.scotland.org/features/the-history-and-words-of-auld-lang-syne.

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Tagged: etymology / holidays

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