Holiday Etymology: It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

We’re currently at the peak of the holiday season: Hanukkah began earlier this week, Christmas and Kwanzaa are right around the corner, and we just passed the December solstice, ringing in a crisp winter air for those in the northern hemisphere and summer warmth for those south of the equator.

Across the world, these last couple of weeks in the calendar year are jam-packed with holiday celebrations. In the most recent issue of MultiLingual magazine, we documented some of our favorite holiday traditions celebrated by folks throughout the language industry. 

As language enthusiasts, we also think it’s fascinating to look at the etymology of the names for these celebrations — here are the origins of names for some common holiday celebrations throughout the world.

Hanukkah

In English, you’ve probably seen a handful of different spellings for this Jewish holiday honoring the Maccabees’ success in revolting against Greek hegemony over Jewish religion and culture. There’s “Chanukah,” “Hanukkah,” “Hanukah,” and a handful of others that English speakers have used over the years to transliterate the Hebrew “חנוכה” into Latin characters.

Like other Semitic languages, Hebrew words are often derived from abstract, three-consonant roots between which vowels and other affixes are added to create new words. The Hebrew word for Hanukkah is derived from a root consisting of the three consonants “חנך,” typically translated into English as “to dedicate” or “to consecrate.” 

The “a,” “u” and “ah” parts are added after each respective consonant to turn the root into a noun, meaning “dedication.” This refers to how the Maccabees revolted against Greek rule and rededicated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem to their religious practices. For more background information on the history and traditions of Hanukkah, see Rivkah Ben-Yisrael’s explanation on page 67 of the latest edition of MultiLingual.

December solstice celebrations

The solstice on Dec. 21 marked the beginning of a new season — winter for those north of the equator and summer for those to the south. Since there are enough solstice celebrations to compile an entirely separate article, it’s hard to do them all justice in a few paragraphs — here are just two. 

In parts of East Asia like China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, you may notice that the names for local winter solstice festivals are somewhat similar, even though different languages are spoken in each country. Vietnamese “​​Đông chí,” Korean “Dongji/ 동지” and Japanese “Tōji/ とうじ” are derived from the Chinese word “Dōngzhì/ 冬至,” literally meaning “winter’s extreme. 

And way back when the Roman Empire was still around, Latin speakers celebrated “Saturnalia,” a festival devoted to the Roman god Saturn, just a few days before the winter solstice took place.

Christmas

Celebrated on Dec. 24th and 25th throughout the Christian world, Christmas has a lot of different names, each with slightly different histories. 

A map showing the etymologies of various European languages’ names for “Christmas.”

The English name is simple enough — the word “Christmas” is derived from the words “Christ” and “mass,” similar to other Christian feast days celebrated in English-speaking regions like “Michaelmas.”

French “Noël”, Italian “Natale”, and Portuguese “Natal” all get their name for Christmas from the Latin word “nātālis,” meaning “birth,” referring, of course, to the birth of Jesus Christ. Similarly, the Spanish name “Navidad” is derived from another Latin word “nātīvitās,” also meaning “birth,” though it’s usually translated into English as “nativity.”

As Christmas traditions subsumed older winter solstice celebrations, it’s no surprise that some languages use words derived from old names for the winter solstice to refer to Christmas. Speakers of North Germanic languages like Danish and Norwegian use the word “Jul,” which comes from the Old Norse “Jól,” a pagan holiday celebrated by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples before their Christianization. 

Kwanzaa

The name for this holiday — which draws on the traditions of western and southern African harvest festivals — was coined a bit more recently than the others on this list, in the mid-1960s. Its name comes from a Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” literally meaning “first fruits.” 

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa — celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 — commemorates a different “principle of Kwanzaa,” such as self-determination or creativity. When the holiday’s creator Maulana Karenga devised the holiday, he tacked on an extra “a” to the Swahili word “kwanza,” to make the word seven letters long, echoing this numeric motif.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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