We’re in the midst of the holiday season and it’s filled with celebration. Around the world, this time of year is shared in a myriad of ways and these many traditions have a rich collection of words to go with them.
Whether it’s a snowman, der Tannenbaum, or la révellion, words for the holidays are as vivid as are the customs.
Here are 25 words to get you feeling festive from around the world:
La réveillon is a special dinner held on Christmas Eve that often lasts into the early hours of the morning.
In France, la crèche is an important holiday decoration. But down in Provence, nativity scenes are taken to a whole new level. Where traditional nativity scenes include key figures surrounding baby Jesus in a manager, la crèche in Provence may include an entire village worth of figures.
Le santon, literally “little saint,” is the name used for the figurines used to decorate the elaborate nativity scenes mentioned above. These figures are of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the Three Wise Men, as well as street vendors, local dignitaries, and even more in Provence.
Wreaths were originally used in observance of Advent, but they are now one of the most iconic holiday decorations. They’re hung on doors and walls and can be made from plants, flowers, ornaments, ribbons, or any combination of the aforementioned decorations.
Reindeer, also known as caribou in North America, are a species of deer native to the Arctic and the mountainous regions of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. According to Christmas legend, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolf are the reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh. These magical reindeer are able to fly, which is how they are able to help Santa deliver gifts around the world on Christmas Eve. The book “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” written by Clement C. Moore in 1823 was the first to name Santa’s reindeer (though Rudolf is a later addition) and is credited as being the source of their popularity.
Learn more words like these in French.
Advent is the first season of the Christian church year--the four weeks leading up to Christmas. During this time, the Christmas tree is set up, as are other decorations, and often, an Advent calendar is kept.
The Christmas tree is an evergreen tree, usually a spruce, pine or fir. It was first seen in what is now Estonia and Germany and has since grown into a tradition synonymous with the holidays. Trees are often decorated with tinsel, ornaments, lights, candles, fruits, or candy with a star placed at the top.
Mulled wine, or der Glühwein in German, is a red wine steeped with mulling spices. Come Christmastime, it is served warm and is a staple at Christmas markets.
Christmas markets are street markets that are traditionally set up the first four weeks of Advent. These markets originated in Germany (the reputed oldest continuous Christmas market--originating in 1384--is in Bautzen, Germany), but are now set up all across the world. What might you find at a Christmas market? Der Glühwein, for one. But also nutcrackers, candied almonds, a Nativity scene, handicrafts, baked goods, and other items.
The first known Christmas cards date back to the 1600s, but it took another 200 years before they became commercially produced. In fact, Queen Mary kept a collection of Christmas cards that you can now see at the British Museum.
Learn more words like these in German.
A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that is used to play games around Hanukkah. One side means “nothing”, another “half”, another “all” and the fourth “put in”. Depending on which side the dreidel lands on when playing, determines what action the player takes. The game is often played with Hanukkah gelt, raisins, or even pennies.
Sufganiyah is a round jelly donut eaten around Hanukkah. It’s filled with jam, deep fried and then dusted with powder sugar.
A latke is a potato pancake that is prepared during Hanukkah. It is eaten as part of the tradition of eating fried foods during eight days of Hanukkah. They are sometimes served with sour cream and green onion.
The Hanukkah Menorah has nine branches--the often higher (and sometimes lower) branch in the middle holds the candle that is used to light the other eight branches, one on each day of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah gelt, or Hanukkah money, refers to the chocolate coins given to children over Hanukkah. The tradition of giving chocolate gelt began in the early 20th century when chocolate manufacturers adapted the tradition from when real coins were given.
Learn more words like these in Hebrew.
Many Christmas traditions around the world include the giving of gifts. Leading up to Christmas Day, the gifts are neatly tucked away beneath the Christmas tree. Come Christmas morning, gifts are exchanged and opened.
There are countless reasons candles are associated with the holiday season. They’ve been used to represent the Star of Bethlehem, in Hanukkah menorahs, at candlelight ceremonies, and in many other holiday traditions.
By the 16th century, Christmas cookies had become a popular Christmas tradition across Europe. Many Christmas cookies are highly stylized, cut out into holiday-themed shapes with cookie cutters and then decorated with frosting and sprinkles.
Some believe the snowman dates as far back as Neanderthal times, but the earliest documentation of a snowman is a marginal illustration from a 1380 “book of hours”--a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages--found in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. Today, snowmen are built in cold climates all over the world and vary in shapes, sizes, and accouterment. In Japan, for instance, snowmen are made from two balls, one big and one small, and without arms. And the Zurich, the Switzerland festival of Sechseläuten features the Böögg--a snowman stuffed with straw, cotton, and dynamite.
Bells are frequently associated with the holidays. From church bells to sleigh bells, everything from ceremonies to songs features bells come Christmas.
A chimney is a pipe or hollow passage through which smoke escapes into the air, usually through the roof of a building or house. In much folklore, the chimney was a place that connected the natural and the supernatural. It was how witches or faeries might enter the home, and so it’s only natural that a magical figure like Santa Claus would also use the chimney as his entry point as he visits homes, delivering presents.
In Christmas lore, the elf is a persona small in stature that works and lives with Santa up in the North Pole, working as his helper. They’re often depicted with pointy hats and are credited with making toys in Santa’s workshop. Currently, a popular tradition in the US is Elf on the Shelf. As part of this, a small toy elf is hidden around the house by parents. It is often up to mischief but is said to be in the home as Santa’s “scout”, reporting back to Santa about whether or not the children in the home have been “naughty or nice”.
Mistle is a parasitic plant that was a symbol in many pre-Christian cultures. The word mistletoe was formed when the Old English word tan, meaning twig, was appended to the plant name. As Christianity spread, it became a Christmas decoration, under which couples are supposed to kiss.
Christmas carols are songs sung during Christmastime about the holiday season. Carolers often perform in public areas and sometimes go from door to door, performing.
A candy cane is a peppermint stick candy shaped like a cane. It is often white with red stripes and it purportedly originated in Cologne, Germany in 1670. They were originally manufactured by hand and thus were available in limited quantities.
Learn more words like these in English.
What about you? What words do you most associate with the holiday season? Share them with us in the comments below!
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