Christmas vocabulary: what's behind the holiday?

Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! And if you are in a country where Christianity is the dominant religion you will certainly see signs of it everywhere you go! Now, I don’t want to take the fun out of what is a really good holiday but Christmas is not everything that it seems to be.

You may know it as one of the most important Christian festivals celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ but, like a lot of other festivals, there is a healthy influence from pre-Christian pagan festivals and a very good injection of pure capitalism into the mix that we now know as Christmas.

Firstly, although December 25th is marked as the day that Jesus Christ was born it is also the day when the most important gods in the religions of Ishtar and Mithra had their birthdays. The Romans also had important winter festivals including the Saturnalia – apparently, when the Romans were being converted to Christianity they were not keen to give up their winter festivals and carried them through into the new religion.

And how about the christmas tree found in nearly every English speaking home during the Christmas period – apparently this is a Christianization of a pagan tradition celebrated during the Winter Solstice. The rituals included the use of evergreen boughs and of pagan tree worship.

Christmas cards and Christmas decorations, which now give the holiday its distinctive character, were only invented in the 19th century and seem to have kicked off the commercialization of Christmas. Which brings me pretty much to the dominant, and perhaps least attractive, aspect of Christmas which is that it has become very big business and there is now a lot more business in Christmas and perhaps a lot less of the original celebration of giving, generosity, sharing and hope than was originally the case.And talk of ‘sharing and giving‘ brings me to our Christmas present to you… our readers and listeners, members and students. English4Today has produced an audio and text e-book of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol for you to use online or download, free of charge, in a Windows desktop software version. What I personally like about Dickens’ Christmas story is that it reminds us in a very positive way of what we should be celebrating at this time of the year – all of us, no matter what religious faith we follow or don’t follow – the spirit of caring, sharing and giving.

If you’d like to use the online version or download the software come back to this blog on Monday when the download links will be published.

I’ll try and keep my own words in mind when my family meets for the traditional Christmas dinner which, as many listeners will know, is not always a moment of Peace and Goodwill Amongst Men and often veers dangerously close to open warfare.

All of that said, it’s a great time of year and any holiday has to be a good holiday! Here’s a list of vocabulary items associated with Christmas for any of you who are breaking into it for the first time.


Christmas Vocabulary

Advent The month leading up to Christmas
angelA messenger of God. Often depicted as a beautiful human-like being with wings and white robes.
BethlehemThe small town in the Middle East believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ
Christmas stockingIn some countries children hand stockings (long socks) at the end of their bed or in front of the fire for Santa to fill with presents.
chimneyA vertical opening in a house from the fireplace that allows smoke to escape. Santa or Father Christmas is said to come down the chimney with gifts for the children.
ChristThe title of Jesus – Jesus Christ, the Christian messiah
ChristianA person who believes in Christianity; also an adjective
ChristianityThe religion based on the teachings and person of Jesus Christ
ChristmasThe annual Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ . Originally meaning Christ’s Mass – a special religious service for the birth of Christ. Christmas Day is on 25 December.
Christmas cakeA rich fruit cake covered with white icing, eaten during the Christmas holiday period
Christmas cardA greetings card that people send to friends and family at Christmas – the first Christmas cards were sent in the 19th Century
Christmas carolA religious or popular song sung at Christmas
Christmas Day25 December, the date that Jesus Christ was said to be born
Christmas EveThe evening or day before Christmas Day (24 December) – often the day that Europeans have their main Christmas meal
Christmas holidaysThe holiday before and after Christmas Day extending up until New Year’s Day (1st January)
Christmas presenta gift or present given at Christmas
Christmas treea pine or fir tree which is decorated with ornaments and lights during the Christmas period
crackera decorated paper tube that makes a sharp noise (“crack!”) and releases a small toy when two people pull it apart – more usual in English speaking countries than in other countries that celebrate Christmas.
Christmas SaleJust after the Christmas holiday many shops sell their products at greatly discounted prices – these are the Christmas Sales.
Santa’s HelpersElves (small mythical people with pointed ears) who help Santa (Father Christmas) make toys for the children.
Father Christmasan imaginary being who brings presents for children on the night before Christmas Day (also known as Santa Claus and Santa) – traditionally an old man with a red suit and white beard
fireplace a partly enclosed space in a house where people light a fire for warmth
Mince PiesMince is usually ground meat but at Christmas small pies are made from rich, mixed fruit which are know as mince pies
hollyan evergreen plant with prickly dark green leaves and red berries
Jesusthe name of Christ, the central figure of Christianity (believed by Christians to be the Son of God)
Josephthe husband of Mary (the mother of Jesus)
magithe wise men from the East who brought gifts for the baby Jesus – in the Bible there are 3 wise men who visit Jesus each carrying a different gift
mangera trough for food for horses or cattle (used by Mary as a cradle or bed for Jesus)
Marythe mother of Jesus
mistletoe a parasitic plant with white berries, traditionally used as a Christmas decoration
myrrha gum used for perfume or incense, one of the gifts that the three wise men gave to Jesus
nativitythe birth of a person (not used in modern English)
the Nativitythe birth of Jesus Christ
nativity playa play that people perform at Christmas based on the birth of Jesus – often performed in schools by the school children
new yearthe start of a new year – the period starting on the 1st January and extending for a few days after that date
New Year’s Day1 January
New Year’s Eve31 December
ornamentan object that adds beauty to something; a decoration
presenta thing given to somebody as a gift.
reindeer a deer with large antlers found in some Northern cold climates. Reindeers are said to pull the sleigh for Santa Claus or Father Christmas and have names such as Rudolph, Dasher, Prancer etc.
Santa Claus an imaginary being who brings presents for children on the night before Christmas Day (also known as Father Christmas) – traditionally an old man with a red suit and white beard
shepherdsomeone who looks after sheep
sleigh a sledge or light cart on runners pulled by horses or reindeer over snow and ice
snowwater vapour from the sky that falls as white flakes and covers the ground
stara bright point in the night sky which is a large, distant incandescent body like the sun
the star of Bethlehemthe star that announced the birth of Jesus and guided the wise men to find Him
tinsel a decoration consisting of thin strips of shiny metal foil, traditionally used at Christmas
turkeya bird like a large chicken, traditionally eaten at Christmas
white Christmasa Christmas with snow on the ground
Xmasabbreviation or informal term for Christmas

Christmas Expressions

  • Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
  • Merry Christmas!
  • Wishing you a prosperous New Year!
  • Seasons Greetings!
  • Happy Christmas!
  • Happy New Year!