Vocabulary Rocks! Christmassy Words!

Of course I can’t allow this Christmas season to pass without researching a few more holiday-themed words. The previous entry into Vocabulary Rocks! for Christmas words was in 2019 and the link is: Vocabulary Rocks! Christmas Edition with etymology for the words advent, crèche, tinsel, frankincense and myrrh, tidings, and bauble.

Here we go again today with awesome etymology and more in our quest to uncover the history of words. Yeah, baby!


A carol is a festive, joyful song, generally religious but it does not have to connect with church worship. Derived from the Old French carole meaning “a circle dance, or dance in a ring, accompanied by singers” and the Medieval Latin choraula, “a dance to the flute.”

For centuries, well into the 1500s, carols were popular dance songs used during festivals and religious ceremonies, including Christmas. Clergy and cantors of the Catholic Church sang sacred music, but only in Latin, and while the Puritans were in power in England all aspects of Christmas were forbidden. Traditions, including carols, survived and were practiced in secret, of course. After the Reformation, music and singing flourished anew and was brought to the common people. Composers were free to write new songs and adapt folk carols to the new style of worship. Many of the famous carols we sing today were written from the late-1600s to 1700s.

Carols, as songs of praise and joy were originally sung during all four seasons. Over time they became more common for the Christmas season, fading from tradition at other times.


Sleigh, as in a “vehicle mounted on runners for use on ice and snow” isn’t as old as one might think, dating to 1703 from the Dutch slee or slede. Indeed, the words sled and sledge are far older, and would have been used as often as or even more than sleigh in British English.

Vehicles of this type which are made to slide across the surface of ice or snow can either have a smooth underside or two narrow runners. The terms can apply to any type, the chosen word reflecting regional variations and historical uses rather than the design. Over time, sleigh over took sledge in Britain, the vehicle essentially a cold-weather alternative to a carriage. Built large enough to carry several passengers and goods, a sleigh is drawn by horses, dogs, or reindeer.

Sleigh-bells date to 1780, used originally to give warning of the approaching sleigh.


A fusion of Old English engel (pronounced with a hard -g) and Old French angele. Both derive from the Latin angelus and Greek angelos, literally “messenger, envoy, one that announces.” In the Bible, angels are “divine messengers” of incredible power (think Sodom and Gomorrah) although typically they strictly relay a communication from God of extreme importance. It is this purpose which ties angels so strongly to the Christmas story.

The archangel Gabriel is sent to inform Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. The account is in Luke 1:26-38. Gabriel had previously appeared to Zechariah, his message of hope that wife Elizabeth (who was old and barren) would soon become pregnant and give birth to John the Baptist. While perhaps not seemingly directly tied to the Christmas story, Elizabeth’s son would be the first to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, even while he was yet in the womb.

In Matthew 1: 20-21, an unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream, assuring him of Mary’s special child. This angel even tells Joseph that the child is to be named Jesus. In Luke 2, an “angel of the Lord” appears to a group of shepherds in Nazareth, announcing the birth of Christ. He tells the shepherds where to find the “baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” after which he is joined by an entire host of angels who begin singing praises to God.

Lastly, in Matthew 2:13 we read that another unnamed angel appears to Joseph warning of Herod’s vile plot to kill the newborn babe. He instructs Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they would be safe.


The noun wreath literally means “that which is wound around” from the Old English writha, where the word “writhe” also comes from. Other word etymologies add “to turn, twist, bend; bandage or band; and harsh, angry twist” to give the varied derivations from the roots. It is easy to deduce how the meaning of a “ring or garland of flowers or vines” came about, this first recorded use of wreath dating to 1560.

The design itself is ancient. Wreaths, under whatever name was used, applied to jewelry and crowns. Precious metals were fashioned into wreaths, of course, but also plants, as seen with the laurel wreaths worn by the Romans and Greeks. All sorts of flowers, branches with leaves, and even fruit were used, typically due to some significance within the culture. This is certainly obvious with the evergreens and winter fruits, berries, etc. seen in Christmas wreaths.

As for the shape, the origins as a crown to signify royalty or an honor of victory (in battle and athletic trials) lead to the circular twining of a wreath as symbolic of strength and status. Early Christians interpreted the wreath as a symbol of immortality, eternity, and divinity, as the shape has no beginning or end.

Beyond these deeper meanings, the wreath was a convenient decoration since it was simple to hang! Because of this, wreaths of all types are a popular household adornment throughout the year. Advent wreaths were first used by Lutherans in 16th century Germany, made from cart wheels to teach children about the meaning of Christmas as they counted down the days. Decorated with evergreens, candles, and so on, these Christmastide wreaths gradually became a tradition.


An adjective dating c.1300 meaning: “merry, cheerful, naturally of a happy disposition; comical; suggesting joy or merriment.” Jolly comes from the Old French jolif meaning: “festive, merry; amorous; pretty” and is closely related to the 12th century Modern French joli meaning: “pretty, nice.” It is often suggested that the word is ultimately Germanic, from a source akin to Old Norse jol “a winter feast” which is where the word yule derives. However, the OED states this is “extremely doubtful” based on “historic and phonetic difficulties.”

Jolly has a history of usages different than the common one above that we closely associate with Santa Claus. Broader Middle English senses, mostly now lost, include: “vigorous, strong, youthful” (c. 1300); “amorous; lecherous; ready to mate; in heat” (c. 1300); “pleasing, beautiful, handsome; noble-looking; handsomely dressed” (c. 1300); “playful, frisky” (mid-14c.); and “arrogant, overweening, foolish” (mid-14c.).

From 1540s, jolly had the meaning: “great, remarkable, uncommon,” hence its use as a general intensifier in expressions of admiration. An example of this usage is seen in the quote below. A colloquial meaning of “somewhat drunk” is from 1650s.

“I thought my selfe a iolye (jolly) fortunate man, as well for the nobylitie of my kyndred… as also for my strayte obseruyng of ye law.” ~1549 Coverdale et al. tr. Erasmus Paraphr. Newe Test. II. Phil. iii. f. viiv

Colorized version of Thomas Nast’s 1881 pencil drawing of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly.

Jolly in association with Santa Claus is credited to Clement Clarke Moore, a writer and professor at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Moore wrote a Christmas poem for his daughters titled An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas, which became popular as The Night before Christmas when published in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. The legendary version of Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus with a merry laugh, a twinkle in the eye, and a sleigh drawn by reindeer was immortalized by Moore, and linked to the word jolly in this stanza:

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself …

Moore’s definitions were a huge departure from the saintly, trim figured person depicted in sketches and descriptions prior. The only slight exception was from Washington Irving, who after his tour of England and writing of the Old Christmas stories in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, wrote Santa Claus as a “portly, bearded man who smokes a pipe” in his book A History of New York. The word jolly is not used, but there are some indications of the word’s standard meaning, including having Santa slide down the chimney.

The illustrations by Thomas Nast, beginning in the early 1860s for Harper’s Weekly, brought the “jolly old elf” to vivid life. The 1865 Christmas carol “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” by Emily Huntington Miller (1833-1913) added to the vision. In the 1920s, Norman Rockwell continued the by-then standard depiction of a jolly red-suited Santa Claus, and in one hundred years nothing significant has changed.



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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