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Christmas, Xmas, Nowel, Yule, Twelfth Night

"Christmas is coming,
And the goose is getting fat!
Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!"

This carol from 17th-century England evokes the dual traditions of charity and celebration long associated with Christmas. But old as the carol is, the actual holiday dates back much farther in time. The birth of Christ has been celebrated as a major Christian festival since the 9th century. Like the festival itself, the words we use for this holiday and for the season in which it occurs have old—and sometimes ancient—roots.

In Romance languages, the word for Christmas comes from the Latin natalis dies (birthday) or nativitas (birth). Hence, the feast day is known as Noël in French, Natale in Italian and Navidad in Spanish. In contrast, the English names for this holiday derive from Old English, the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons and their descendants between the 5th and 11th centuries AD.

In Anglo-Saxon times, the Christmas season was originally known as geol, a term carried over from the name of a pre-Christian mid-winter festival. Over the centuries, the Old English word geol evolved into its modern form, Yule, which is related to the words for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages (Jul) and in Finnish (Joulu).

By the 11th century, December 25 had come to be known as Cristes mæsse, meaning "Christ’s mass." In time, this term came to be written as one word, and eventually its spelling changed to Christmas.

The 14th century saw the introduction into English of yet another name for Christmas: Nowel, an anglicized spelling of the French name Noël. Although now archaic, this term and its variants are still sometimes seen, as in the 18th-century carol "The First Nowell," still popular today.

A common, informal substitute for Christmas is Xmas, an abbreviation in which the name of Christ is replaced by the first letter of his name in Greek, Xristos. Although it is popular in advertising today, this short form is not modern; in fact, the basis for Xmas dates back to the 16th century, when the form X’temmas was used as an abbreviation for the older spelling Christemmas.

Today, many people think of Christmas as a one- or two-day holiday. However, the well-known 18th-century carol that begins with a partridge and ends with 12 drummers drumming reminds us that Christmas involves a much longer period of celebration—and possibly of gift-giving! In fact, Christmastide begins at sundown on Christmas Eve and ends on January 6. This season of festivity has been celebrated in England since Anglo-Saxon times, when the 9th-century Christian king Alfred the Great forbade all work during the twelve days of Christmas.

The final night of the season (between January 5 and 6) is known as Twelfth Night. Interestingly, it is thought that the Shakespearean play by the same name was originally intended as an entertainment to be performed on this evening. In some cultures, gifts are given on Twelfth Night or on each of the twelve days of Christmas instead of on Christmas Day.

As can be seen, whether we refer to it as Christmas, Yule or Xmas, whether we celebrate for one day or twelve, the Christian mid-winter festival has a long and interesting history. For those observing the Yuletide season with family and friends, we hope that the celebration will be made a little merrier by this brief look at the origins of a few Christmas terms and traditions!