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The origins of well-known Christmas words

By Tarli Cameron | November 29, 2021 | Word Geek

The origins of well-known Christmas words

Christmastime. A wonderland of sparkling lights, spiced aromas, festive window displays and togetherness.

Excited by the melting pot of festive words that pop up this time of year, Word Geek has embraced the season of giving and gifted you the origins of some well-known Christmas words.

No matter what you love about Christmas, we hope these words will leave you feeling tree-mendously festive (sorry, we couldn’t resist) and a little bit wiser.


It seems only right that we start with Christmas. The Christian term, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, dates back to 1038 and comes from Middle English Cristemass and later in 1131, Cristes-messe. It is an early compound word and comes from the combination of the words Christ and Mass.

Also known today as Xmas, Christmas, was abbreviated in the 16th century. The “X” comes from the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Christós, which became Christ in English. Some believe that the abbreviation was an attempt to remove the religious sentiment from the word, but it was first used in the 1600s.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day is celebrated the day after Christmas and is one for which we have the Victorians to thank. On Boxing Day during the Victorian era, those who were affluent would box up gifts for those less fortunate.

Servants were traditionally given a day off their duties and would receive a special gift from their masters containing either food, money or special items as a thank you for their duties. Servants would then share these gifted boxes with their families.


Love them or not, carols have long been a Christmas tradition. Surprisingly though they haven’t always referred to just singing. Dating back to 1300, Carol came from Old French caroler, which derived from the Latin choraula, referring to a circle dance. The circle dance, carried out during Pagan celebrations such as May Day or Winter Solstice, would be accompanied by singing. The song which was sung during the dance was also known as a carol.

At the same time, Christians started writing their own religious songs which over time became the carols we know and sing today. It’s not clear how long it takes for a song to be considered a carol, but Word Geek looks forward to the day Wham’s Last Christmas joins the list!


During the festive season, Christmas cards and shop windows are adorned with the words “Merry Christmas” and it’s become a universal term, but have you ever wondered why the word merry is used?

Its first use was in a letter written on 22nd December 1534 from John Fisher, an English Catholic, to Thomas Cromwell, in which he extends his seasonal well wishes. “And this our Lord God send you a merry Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire” [sic, Word Geek takes no responsibility for the 16th century grammar!].

In 1843, there were thought to be two sources that helped to popularise Merry Christmas. One was the very first Christmas card, sent by Sir Henry Cole, which read “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”. The second source was the classic book, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, in which we see the term used 21 times and the fragile character, Tiny Tim, say “a Merry Christmas to us all; God bless, everyone.”