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Yule Love This

We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Just in time for the holiday season, Merrill takes a look at the origins of some yuletide expressions.

A couple of years ago we discussed some of the abuse that poor, misused apostrophes suffer this time of year, in expressions like "seasons' greetings," "'tis the season," and "be good for goodness' sake."

This year, your holiday gift is a discussion of some seasonal expressions and their origins.

Let's start with the "mas" in "Christmas." Since that's a combining form of "Mass," "Christmas" literally means Christ Mass." And Christmas isn't the only "mas." If you're familiar with the British or with British authors, you've probably heard of Michaelmas (celebrating St. Michael) or Candlemas (the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary).

Then there's "yuletide," in the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," among other places. People who equate "Yule" and "Christmas" may be surprised to hear that "yule" was originally a midwinter pagan festival for Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons. (Its Old Norse word was jōl.) In the days before Julian calendars, the early forms of "yule" also referred to specific winter weeks. Most dictionaries prefer it lowercased, but you'll see "Yule" as often as "yule" in print. The "tide" combining form is just an old way of saying "time." (Like "yule," it's really old, recorded in the first century A.D.)

You might have — or bake — a "yule log" for the holidays. The Oxford English Dictionary, which calls it a "yule-log," traces its first use to 1725: "from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun." Though it was originally a large log burned in fireplaces especially for Christmas, someone decided to make a pastry out of it. Foodtimeline.org says its origin is French (it's often called a Bûche de Noël, literally "hunk of yule wood"), probably from the nineteenth century, based on the ingredients. (All yummy.)

On your mantle you might also have a "poinsettia" plant. Note that last "i," which is frequently forgotten — after all, most people pronounce it "poin-SET-ah," not "poin-SET-tee-ah." This tradition is not so old: Poinsettia plants, native to Central America, were not introduced into the U.S. until 1828 when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. minister to Mexico, brought them home.

The poinsettia's association with Christmas is also traced to Mexico, where they're known as flor de noche buena, or holy night flower. In a Mexican legend, a young girl on her way to a Christmas Eve service, sad that she had no offering, met an angel. The angel told her to pick some ugly weeds and offer them instead. When the girl placed the weeds on the altar, they burst into bloom.

Of course, those bright red (or white, or pink) blooms are not flowers at all, but bracts — the leaflike part that usually surrounds a flower. The poinsettia's flower is very small, the yellow or red berry-like things in the middle of those bracts.

And despite what you may have heard, poinsettias are not poisonous. Some people are allergic to its sap, but the leaves themselves taste so bad that few people would be tempted to eat them anyway.

Consider that your Christmas tip.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 21st 2011, 5:55 AM
Comment by: Mike (Galveston, TX)
Delightful article, useful for telling my grandchildren a Christmas story about the words they know and use at Christmas time. Thank you Ms. Merrill
Wednesday December 21st 2011, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
If yule comes from jol, is that where "jolly" comes from?
Thursday December 22nd 2011, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fun observation about the naming of poinsettias. "Fuchsia" (the plant) has a similar origin, named for the botanist Leonhard Fuchs, and likewise exhibiting the -ia combining form, described nicely here:


Also interesting to hear about the gift of the poinsettias in Mexican folklore. As you might know, there's a not dissimilar story associated with the Virgin of the Guadalupe (Mexico patron saint), who told a young man to build a church on a particular spot and proved his credibility to the priests with the miraculous appearance of flowers.
Thursday December 29th 2011, 12:15 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
So funny; not in the sense of "hilarious," but in the notion of selecting a timely topic.
I came to familiarize with POINSETTIA's varieties of color and size only for the last three years; I'm now lucky enough in knowing the history of this symbolic plant, a Christmas presenter in USA I believe.
How brilliant you are in your thinking, that amazed me very much. A very simple topic, yet so rich with factual truth or myths.
Thank you again.
Saturday December 31st 2011, 2:57 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Another interesting bit about the "yule log"...

In the time near to the Civil War, when there were still plantations with hundreds of African American slaves, an interesting tradition concerning this log was practiced on the Brodas plantation, the one that Harriet Tubman was born and grew up on-and later fled.

There was a rule that as long as the yule log burned, there was no work. So the slaves would spend days before Christmas Eve preparing this log.
They chose the thickest, heaviest log they could find, then soaked it in water so that it would burn slowly and for a long time. This ensured them at least Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to celebrate on.
A kind lady I know who is fascinated with the older Christmas traditions informed me this practice of preparing a yule log was not uncommon to other parts of the US in older times.

Saturday December 29th 2012, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Jimmy W M. (Sacramento, CA)
I am hanging this by the chimney with care in
understanding that all Saints will enjoy also
the splendor of this coloring bright for night.

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