Feedback

Where Do Christmas Words Like “Wassail” And “Sugarplum” Come From?

Depending on where you live, Christmas comes at a time of year that is cold, dark, and not very pleasant. What makes it all bearable, though, is that you can get together with friends and family to share meals, exchange gifts, and just hang out.

But, what happens when the conversation starts to run dry? Don’t fret, we put together a list of some of our favorite Christmas word facts for the next time you need that festive conversation starter.

1. winter

We think of winter simply as a season—one that comes after fall and before spring (unless you live in Florida, in which case it’s something you see only in movies).

But for the Anglo-Saxon people, counting winters was a way of expressing the passage of a time. For example, a one-year-old baby was known as ánwintre, or “one-winter.”

How many winters old are you?

2. frost

Frost is cold, chilling even. When you see a white, icy sheen on your window you know you’re in for a nippy day.

But the origins of the word frost tell us a lot about what it’s like to be cold. Like, really cold.

The word frost is found in Old English, and is related to the word freeze. But, historical linguists think the far more ancient origin of these words is the Proto-Indo-European root preus-, meaning “freeze,” but, perhaps surprisingly, also its opposite: “burn.”

This might seem strange until you learn that when you touch something really, really cold, it can feel like you’re being burnt. Think about it … but don’t try it! We’re definitely not recommending you try it!

3. reindeer

Reindeer like to live up north in pretty cold places, so most of us probably won’t get to see them. The word reindeer comes through the Middle English raynder from the Old Norse word hreindȳri. As you likely expected, reindeer is related to the word deer through the Norse word dȳr, meaning “animal.”

Reindeer are a popular Christmas animal thanks to the team of eight—or nine—reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh. The first eight reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen) were first introduced in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” commonly known as “Twas the Night before Christmas.” The ninth reindeer was created by Robert L. May in his 1939 storybook “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Most of the reindeer’s names are based on actual words. (Although if you are naming a reindeer “Vixen” that probably says more about you than it does the reindeer.) Blitzen’s seemingly odd name makes more sense when you pair them with Donner. In the original poem, Donner’s and Blitzen’s names were Dunder and Blixem, which are the Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning.”

So, that covers the reindeer, but Santa Claus himself also goes by many different names. Both the English Santa Claus and the Dutch Sinterklaas are based on the name of St. Nicholas, the man whom Santa is based on.

If you want to learn even more names for Santa Claus, we have a guide to the many names of Santa you can find around the world.

4. snowman

The word snowman has, so far, only been recorded in English since the 1820s. However, people have been making little men out of snow for centuries.

According to Bob Eckstein, the author of The History of the Snowman, the first snowman depiction was found in the margins of a manuscript from 1380. But the most impressive snowman in history was possibly the one made by the artist Michelangelo in 1494, said to be a “dry run” of his marble statue, David.

5. cozy 

When the weather is terrible outside, it’s lovely to be warm and cozy indoors. It makes sense, then, that the word cozy is believed to come from a place known for its wild wintery weather, Scotland.

According to the Scottish National Dictionary, cozy (or cozie as it was sometimes spelled, among other forms) was popularized by the 18th-century poet Robert Burns. An example comes from his poem “To a Mouse”:

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell …

Clever mouse.

Go Behind The Words!

Get the strangest stories of your favorite words in your inbox.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

6. wassail

Wassail is a merry word that means to toast someone or spend a good time drinking with them. As a noun, wassail can refer to a friendly toast, drunken revelry, or to a drink drunk during festive times like Christmas. Wassailing is a British custom of visiting neighbors and wishing them good fortune or spreading cheer with songs in return for food and drink. The practice of Christmas caroling comes from wassailing.

The custom of wassailing is very old and the word wassail is recorded around the late 1100s. It comes through the Middle English was-hail, meaning “to be in good health.”

7. hibernate

In winter, people like to hibernate, or go somewhere they can wait out the winter. That’s actually what the word originally referred to: staying somewhere over the winter months (like grandparents who go to Florida).

In the 1800s, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, took an interest in animals who hibernated by slowing down their metabolisms and going dormant all winter, such as bears. Many credit him for first using the term hibernation for this phenomenon.

Apparently natural science ran in the Darwin family!

Fun fact: the word hibernate is rooted in the Latin hībernus, meaning “wintry.”

8. toboggan

If you live somewhere that gets a lot of snow, you might be familiar with sledding on toboggans.

A toboggan is a kind of flat-bottomed sled. The toboggan was invented by subarctic Indigenous peoples, where it was essential for transport in snow-bound places.

The word comes from the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy tʰapákən and Micmac topaĝan, which are Algonquian languages. The form toboggan may have been influenced by French.

By 1929, toboggan also came to refer to a beanie-looking wool knit cap many wear while tobogganing.

Honor the indigenous origins of many English words—including favorite foods and drinks—by learning about their roots in the language of Nahuatl.

9. Tannenbaum

What on earth is a Tannenbaum? You might know the answer if you are a fan of Christmas carols. The popular Christmas song “O Christmas Tree” is an English translation of the German song “O Tannenbaum,” the most popular version of which was written by Ernst Anschütz in 1824. The word Tannenbaum literally means “fir tree” in German. Although not all Christmas trees are fir trees and vice versa, the word Tannenbaum is mostly used in English to specifically refer to a Christmas tree.

10. tinsel 

Tinsel is a glittery material that is used to make Christmas trees sparkle like stars. Modern tinsel is often made of plastic or PVC, but it has also been made out of more expensive metals, such as lead, copper, or even silver.

The word tinsel comes from a variant of the Latin word scintilla, meaning “spark.” In older times, the word tinsel referred to flashy or sparkly clothing that had gold or silver thread, or possibly even actual gold or silver, woven into them.

11. Yule

You might have heard people refer to Christmas as Yule and wondered where the word comes from.

Yule comes from a name for a 12-day festival, celebrated by Germanic peoples, around the winter solstice in December and January. Among Nordic peoples, where this festival was called jol in Old Norse, Yule was connected with the all-powerful god Odin.

In the year 221, the Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus identified December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. The historically pagan Yule fell around the same time as the Christian Christmas (which eventually spread throughout Europe), and so over time, Yule became associated with Christmas.

In fact, by the time Yule is recorded in Old English, the word was already synonymous with “Christmas.”

12. solstice

Speaking of the winter solstice, that word also has an interesting history.

The word solstice comes from the Latin sōlstitium, effectively meaning “the sun standing still.” That might seem confusing because the winter solstice, which happens around Christmas every year, is actually the shortest day of the year.

What gives? During the winter solstice, the North Pole is at its farthest point from the sun due to the tilt of Earth’s axis. This makes it looks like the sun moves over the course of the day until abruptly stopping (standing still) and changing its direction.

Since ancient times, the solstices have marked seasonal change and times to celebrate, like Yule.

13. deck and don

During the winter holidays, people often deck the halls with decorations and don their wintry best.

Deck, as a verb, means to cover or clothe someone or something in festive or decorative things. So when people “deck the halls with boughs of holly,” they are decorating the halls with holly. The English verb deck comes from the Dutch dekken, meaning “to cover.”

Don, as a verb, means to put on clothing and is the opposite of the infrequently used word doff, meaning to remove clothing. Don is a contraction of the phrase “do on,” which was used to mean to put something on. The word don is used in the popular holiday song “Deck the Halls” in the line “don we now our gay apparel.” This line also uses an older meaning of the word gay in the sense of “merry” or “lively.” “Gay apparel” in the song, then, is referring to something like party clothes or a Christmas sweater.

14. holly

You can’t have a holly jolly Christmas without holly plants. Hollies aren’t known for their flowers, but it is instead their bright red berries and green leaves that make this plant perfect for Christmas–and holly’s color is partially responsible for making red and green the de facto Christmas colors.

The word holly comes from a shortening of the Old English holegn or holen, an older word for the distinctive plant.

Holly is also one of the many plants commonly used in supposed “witches’ brews.” Learn more about them and other potent plants.

15. poinsettia

Poinsettias are small trees or shrubs that have brightly colored red and green leaves, which makes them popular during Christmas. But did you know that this festive plant’s common name comes from a friend of President Andrew Jackson?

Poinsettias are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US minister to Mexico. Poinsett enjoyed botany as a hobby and gathered some poinsettia plants during one of his trips to Mexico. Poinsett was skilled at growing the pretty plants and gave one to botanist Robert Buist, who referred to it as Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. The name stuck, and the popular plant was thereafter commonly known as the poinsettia.

16. eggnog

Eggnog is a controversial favorite in some holiday celebrations. The drink, made with eggs and heavy cream, is often spiked with bourbon or other alcohol. Some people find it gross and some people love it, but there’s no denying that eggnog has a long history.

Historians believe that eggnog is a twist on a drink called posset made with hot milk and alcohol that was common in the Middle Ages. In fact, the word nog originally referred to a kind of beer or strong ale in eastern England.

While today eggnog doesn’t always include alcohol, it certainly did when the word was first attested in the United States in mid-1700s.

Fun fact: there is also a National Eggnog Day. It’s Christmas Eve (surprise, surprise).

17. chestnut

You know that winter has arrived when someone is roasting chestnuts over a roaring fire—or maybe just using the Chestnut emoji 🌰! The word chestnut refers to a specific type of tree and the tasty nuts that are found on them.

Chestnut is a shortening of the older name chesten nut. The word chesten can be traced back to the Latin castanea and Greek kastanéa, which were used to refer to specific trees that grew chestnuts.

18. sugarplum

Our favorite part of the ballet The Nutcracker (1892) is the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” We have to be honest though; we’ve never actually eaten a sugarplum. So, where does this word come from, and how did it come to be associated with Christmas?

Well, sugarplum is a word that dates to the early 1600s. It was originally used to describe any kind of boiled sugar candy, often with a nut or fruit in the center. They were not, according to culinary historians, made from actual plums, but were small and round, like plums. And in slang, plum has been associated with all sorts of sweet things.

Just like today, Christmastime was often when children (and adults) would enjoy all kinds of sweets, apparently including sugarplums.

🎄Fun fact about sugarplums

While we associate sugarplums with The Nutcracker, they also appear in the popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823) in the line “While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Not familiar with this poem? It begins: “‘Twas the night before Christmas …”

As you can see, the histories of words are full of surprising facts. Maybe there are some your family members know that will surprise you, too.

19. nativity

Nativity means “birth” or refers to a specific place or circumstances surrounding a birth. The word nativity originally comes from the Latin word nātīvitās (“birth”).

When used with a capital N, Nativity refers specifically to the birth of Jesus Christ and the events surrounding it. The Nativity of Christ is celebrated by non-Orthodox Christians as Christmas, which occurs on December 25. A nativity scene is a recreation of Jesus’s birth and often takes the form of decorations or performances.

From nativity scenes to Christmas carols, read about 12 of the most popular Christmas traditions.

20. magi

Speaking of Jesus’s birth, Christians know that baby Jesus was visited by three wise men bearing gifts. These men are sometimes known as the Magi. The word magi is the plural of the word magus, which refers to a magician or astrologer. This word originally comes from the Persian maguŝ, which referred to Zoroastrian priests or scholarly men of non-Persian nations.

As gifts, the Magi brought baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is self-explanatory, but what are frankincense and myrrh?

Frankincense is a substance that was burned during religious ceremonies or used as perfume. Frankincense attaches an archaic sense of frank meaning “high quality,” which means that one of the wise men gave Jesus really good incense.

Myrrh refers to a similar natural substance used in incense in perfumes. The name myrrh, which is used to refer both to the substance as well as the tree it comes from, originally comes from the Akkadian word murru.

21. partridge

It’s tough to say specifically what kind of bird you’re talking about when describing the “partridge in a pear tree” that your true love gave to you. That’s because the word partridge is a general name used to refer to several different kinds of birds that resemble quails or grouse.

That might be for the best, though, because the origins of partridge aren’t particularly flattering. This word originally comes from the Latin perdix and the Greek pérdix. The name Perdix is also used to refer to a genus of partridges. Unfortunately for the partridges, the Greek pérdix comes from a verb that means “to fart.” We can’t say for sure, but this flatulent factoid seems to be due to the sound that partridges make when flapping their wings.

22. white elephant

A Silent Santa gift exchange is when people anonymously give thoughtful gifts to each other. A White Elephant gift exchange takes the idea and spins its head; this holiday game involves people typically gifting each other bad, useless, or funny gifts.

A white elephant is an object somebody doesn’t want because it typically costs money to maintain and is also hard to get rid of. This term comes from stories that claimed the King of Siam would give white elephants to members of the court he didn’t like. The unfortunate victim had to accept the gift so as not to disgrace the king, but they were stuck with a very cumbersome animal that was impossible to house and feed without spending huge amounts of money.

Take our quiz!

Before you don your finest (or funniest) Christmas garb, make sure you’ve decked out your vocabulary with these festive words! Here’s the full Christmas words list (our gift to you!) with a spelling quiz and flashcards. Or test yourself with our quiz on this wonderland of seasonal words!

Christmastime is rife with traditions—lights, carols, presents, and more! Let's look at the most popular and beloved traditions to learn their origins.

Previous Dictionary.com’s 2021 Word Of The Year Is ... Next From Unity To Faith: The Meaning Of Kwanzaa And Its Celebrations