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.
|Advent||The month leading up to Christmas|
|angel||A messenger of God. Often depicted as a beautiful human-like being with wings and white robes.|
|Bethlehem||The small town in the Middle East believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ|
|Christmas stocking||In 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.|
|chimney||A 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.|
|Christ||The title of Jesus – Jesus Christ, the Christian messiah|
|Christian||A person who believes in Christianity; also an adjective|
|Christianity||The religion based on the teachings and person of Jesus Christ|
|Christmas||The 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 cake||A rich fruit cake covered with white icing, eaten during the Christmas holiday period|
|Christmas card||A greetings card that people send to friends and family at Christmas – the first Christmas cards were sent in the 19th Century|
|Christmas carol||A religious or popular song sung at Christmas|
|Christmas Day||25 December, the date that Jesus Christ was said to be born|
|Christmas Eve||The evening or day before Christmas Day (24 December) – often the day that Europeans have their main Christmas meal|
|Christmas holidays||The holiday before and after Christmas Day extending up until New Year’s Day (1st January)|
|Christmas present||a gift or present given at Christmas|
|Christmas tree||a pine or fir tree which is decorated with ornaments and lights during the Christmas period|
|cracker||a 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 Sale||Just after the Christmas holiday many shops sell their products at greatly discounted prices – these are the Christmas Sales.|
|Santa’s Helpers||Elves (small mythical people with pointed ears) who help Santa (Father Christmas) make toys for the children.|
|Father Christmas||an 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 Pies||Mince is usually ground meat but at Christmas small pies are made from rich, mixed fruit which are know as mince pies|
|holly||an evergreen plant with prickly dark green leaves and red berries|
|Jesus||the name of Christ, the central figure of Christianity (believed by Christians to be the Son of God)|
|Joseph||the husband of Mary (the mother of Jesus)|
|magi||the 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|
|manger||a trough for food for horses or cattle (used by Mary as a cradle or bed for Jesus)|
|Mary||the mother of Jesus|
|mistletoe||a parasitic plant with white berries, traditionally used as a Christmas decoration|
|myrrh||a gum used for perfume or incense, one of the gifts that the three wise men gave to Jesus|
|nativity||the birth of a person (not used in modern English)|
|the Nativity||the birth of Jesus Christ|
|nativity play||a play that people perform at Christmas based on the birth of Jesus – often performed in schools by the school children|
|new year||the start of a new year – the period starting on the 1st January and extending for a few days after that date|
|New Year’s Day||1 January|
|New Year’s Eve||31 December|
|ornament||an object that adds beauty to something; a decoration|
|present||a 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|
|shepherd||someone who looks after sheep|
|sleigh||a sledge or light cart on runners pulled by horses or reindeer over snow and ice|
|snow||water vapour from the sky that falls as white flakes and covers the ground|
|star||a bright point in the night sky which is a large, distant incandescent body like the sun|
|the star of Bethlehem||the 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|
|turkey||a bird like a large chicken, traditionally eaten at Christmas|
|white Christmas||a Christmas with snow on the ground|
|Xmas||abbreviation or informal term for Christmas|
- Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
- Merry Christmas!
- Wishing you a prosperous New Year!
- Seasons Greetings!
- Happy Christmas!
- Happy New Year!