‘Tis the season for holiday phrases — carols, decorations, and greeting cards wishing “happy holidays,” “good tidings,” and a seemingly infinite number of other festive expressions. Let’s explain the history behind these holiday season phrases so that you can have an even merrier (and more informed) Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and New Year.
The phrase “Happy Holidays” is surprisingly new. Camel, an American cigarette brand, is credited for popularizing it as a wintertime phrase thanks to a 1937 holiday ad that proclaimed, “A gift of Camels says, ‘Happy Holidays and Happy Smoking!’” Before then, the phrase was used primarily in British English to refer to summer vacation from school. The word “holiday” itself is much older, though. Its etymology can be traced back centuries to the Old English word “haligdaeg,” which meant “holy day” or “religious festival.” Since there are several holidays that occur in or around the month of December, it’s a useful secular catch-all phrase to wish folks well during the season.
When singing “Feliz Navidad,” you are wishing someone a “Merry Christmas.” The Spanish word “feliz” traces back to the Latin term “felix,” meaning “happy,” and “Navidad” is the Spanish word for “Christmas.” The spirited holiday song by the same name was written in 1970 by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano.
“Good tidings we bring to you and your kin. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” This Christmas carol line is used on holiday cards throughout the season, but what are “good tidings?” By definition, it is a way to say “good news.” In another holiday classic “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the line “tidings of comfort and joy” has the same general meaning. “Glad tidings” can be used interchangeably with “good tidings.” The word “tidings” stems from the Old English term “tidan” which meant “to happen.”
Bells on Bobtails Ring
In the classic Christmas carol (which is believed to have been written for a Thanksgiving Sunday school program) “Jingle Bells,” the line “bells on bobtails ring, making spirits bright,” actually refers to the horse. A “bobtail” was the term used for a horse’s tail that had been cut short to avoid getting caught in the reins. The bells were tied around them as a festive way to enjoy a holiday sleigh ride.
Trim the Tree
While you might get a trim at the hair salon before Christmas dinner in order to look your best, “trim the tree” doesn’t mean to cut the branches. Instead, it means it’s time to decorate. The use of “trim” to mean “decorate or adorn” was first recorded in the 1540s. The word stems from an Old English term “trymian,” which had many meanings, including “strengthen, arrange, prepare, or make ready.” A Christmas dinner might also include “trimmings,” but in this case, the word means garnishes or accompaniments.
The More the Merrier
This common phrase refers to the company of many being more enjoyable than the company of a few. But that's not the entire phrase. First recorded in 1530, the full expression goes, “the more the merrier; the fewer, the better fare,” meaning, with fewer people there will be more food.
Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
An old saying, but still relevant, some parents might use this one on Christmas morning (or on one of the eight nights of Hanukkah) while talking to their children. If a parent tells their child “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” they are telling them not to question the value of a gift. This proverb comes from the task of checking a horse’s teeth for its age. Essentially, checking the age of a horse when it is a gift is rude — the gift in itself should be enough, no matter the age or value.
Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol
The word “troll” has many negative connotations today, but in the context of “Deck the Halls” it takes on one of its earlier definitions: to sing loudly or to celebrate in song. “Yuletide” is an archaic term for the Christmas season. “Yule” stems from the Old English word “geol” meaning Christmas Day, and “tide” meaning a portion of time. When put together, the verse roughly translates to “merrily sing the old Christmas song.”
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