Vocabulary ROCKS! Christmas Edition

Vocabulary ROCKS! Christmas Edition

I doubt any of these words associated with the Christmas season are unfamiliar, but often the meanings and origins of even the most common words can be fascinating and surprising. At least to me, an avowed vocabulary nut! Read on for Christmas fun facts and knowledge (Additional fuel to dazzle your holiday guests!)


The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of Advent as “The arrival of a notable person or thing”.  The word stems from the Latin root, Adventus, which means “arrival or coming” – the root from the word advenire whereby ad – ‘to’ and venire – ‘come’. This root is the same as for the word adventure, signifying something important or momentous that is “about to happen”.

In Christendom, Advent (always a noun) denotes the season of preparation before Christmas.The Advent or “period of the Nativity” begins four weeks before Christmas, the “arrival” being the birth of the Savior. Stretching back to the tenth century, the religious application was the only definition of the word Advent in every language for centuries, and is still by far the most common usage. The more generic meaning of “any important arrival” gradually seeping into the English language somewhere in the 1740s, but was rarely used and did not appear in any English dictionaries until the mid-nineteenth century.


“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a cratch.”

This unfamiliar translation of Luke 2:7 sounds strange to us but back in the 1300s the substitution of cratch for manger was common. Spelling was imprecise and several words, including cratch, cracche, crache, and crecche, were used as the name of a trough for holding feed for livestock. Naturally, for those who know the Biblical story, Jesus was laid in a manger after his birth in the Nazareth stable, so these varied spellings were applied. But what about the word itself?

The French crèche comes from 13th-century Old French cresche meaning “crib, manger, stall”. I should also note here that there are many different words for both “crib” and “manger” in other languages that were applied to the specific bed where Jesus was laid. Over time, in large part due to Saint Francis of Assisi creating the first live Nativity scene in 1223 (a tradition that grew in popularity), the word crèche came to mean not just the straw-lined manger/crib but the entire stable setting, animals and all.


Originating mid-15c. as “a kind of cloth made with interwoven gold or silver thread,” from Middle French estincelle “spark, spangle”.

Tinsel as “very thin sheets or strips of shiny metal” is first recorded in the 1590s, and took its name from the sparkling silvery or golden threads that made tinsel fabric so shiny. The word tinsel was also applied to “anything showy with little real worth” from at least the 1650s, if not earlier. Tinsel was used for adding shine to walls, ceilings, and other objects. The thin strips first adorned German Christmas trees in 1610.

Boswellia tree

Frankincense and Myrrh

The word frankincense is from the late 14c., from Old French franc meaning “noble, true, high quality, pure” and encens “incense” meaning “that which is burnt, or set on fire”.

Frankincense is the fragrant gum or resin of the Boswellia tree and was used for making perfume and incense. When burned, the fragrance is sweet and citrusy. In the ancient world, the tree was only found on the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Africa.

The word myrrh is from Old French mirre (11c.) meaning “bitter”. Obtained from the Commiphora tree (also only found on the Arabian Peninsula and Africa) by cutting into the bark, the leaked resin is allowed to harden and scraped off the trunk in tear-shaped droplets. Myrrh can be used in its dried form or steamed to yield essential oils, and when burned as incense, as the name implies, the fragrance is piney and bitter.

Frankincense (white top) and Myrrh (brown bottom) resin gum

The uses for both of these substance were myriad in the ancient world, including multiple medicinal applications. However, the use of frankincense and myrrh since antiquity was as a primary choice for religious ceremonies in all of the leading cultures, including Judaism. This often meant burning the resins as incense, but also crushed or ground for burial rituals as a sacred embalming material, an offering to the departed and a means to cover the odor of the dead body.

Long a component of holy rituals in the temple in Jerusalem, the significance of the Wise Men gifting frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus was immediately understood by Mary and Joseph, and to all who have read the Scripture recounting ever since. Additionally, at that period of time, either of these two substances was extraordinarily expensive and literally unobtainable by anyone outside of royalty or the priesthood. Simply put, the combined gifts of frankincense and myrrh were unquestionably far more valuable than the third gift of gold.


“O tidings of comfort and joy…” ~God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Luke 2:10

Tidings is one of those words rarely used in everyday conversation at any time other than Christmas and if tossed out, even during this time of year, few probably know of its deeper meaning.

The simple definition of tidings is an “announcement of an event,” dating c. 1200 from late Old English tidung “event, occurrence, piece of news,” verbal noun from Old English tidan “to happen,” or in part from Old Norse tiðendi (plural) “events, news,” from tiðr (adj.) “occurring.” It is, obviously, related to tide – “to carry; to happen,” – the most familiar use in the ocean’s tide, but also tacked onto special days such as “Yuletide” and “Christmastide.” In these instances, the weightier definition is of “an ecclesiastical anniversary or festival; its season” hints to the deeper meaning I alluded to above.

Tidings, as seen in Scripture and Christmas-related writings is an “announcement of an event or occurrence not previously made known; of a piece of important news or intelligence,” and as seen in the word betide, “to happen especially by fate.”

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as tidings is euangelizo, “to bring, declare, preach; to show good or glad tidings.” The word is used of any message designed to cheer those who receive it, the vast majority of those instances in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and the establishment of the Church.


We call them ornaments, but in the beginning, those pretty round balls hung on trees were known as baubles.

Etymology-wise, bauble dates to the early 14c., a “showy trinket or ornament,” from Old French baubel – “child’s toy, trinket,” probably a reduplication of bel, from Latin bellus meaning “pretty” (same root as the word belle). The implication was of a pretty but essentially pointless trifle of little or no worth. In Tudor England, the colorful baton carried by court jesters was called a bauble, the term applied because jesters were symbolically foolish and slow-witted, or in other words, of little value beyond being entertaining and nice to look at.

Associating bauble with Christmas and tree ornaments originates with Hans Greiner and Christoph Muller in 1597. In Lauscha in Germany, located conveniently by a river with lots of sand, these two men opened the very first glass workshop in town. Soon they became renowned for their fine glassware, an art form passed on to their descendants, most notably another Hans Greiner who, in 1847, combined glassblowing and molds to handcraft glass ornaments in the shape of fruits and nuts (examples to the right). While finely crafted and sought after, it was Greiner’s creation of round baubles resembling delicate painted or decorated eggshells and clear or frosted balls that made him famous. By inserting a hot glass tube into a clay form and blowing to fill the space, the interior surface of the sphere attained a silvery appearance through compounds of lead or mercury (later silver nitrate).

The decorating of trees was fast becoming a rage across Europe, and Greiner’s glittery baubles were the perfect decoration. By 1880, Christmas baubles were being brought to America, primarily by American F.W. Woolworth who became rich largely as the main importer of the decorations.

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