Merry New Year!
As you may remember, the last philology feature explained the roots of our hybrid Halloween holiday. It turns out that our celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s
Eve aren’t much different.
When it is nearly Christmas – or rather, as soon as Sinterklaas has gone back to Spain – radio and television delight in stuffing our ears with the cheesiest Christmas carols. If, like me, you are a fan of the Golden Oldies, you will recognize these lyrics:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.
These are the lyrics of a verse of the carol “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, as popularized by Frank Sinatra. This particular verse sports an expression that only seems to surface around Christmas: the Yule-tide. But when it is Christmas, it is Christmas and it cannot also be the Yule-tide, right? Or can it?
Going back to our good friend the Oxford English Dictionary, we learn that Yule-tide now refers to Christmas and its festivities.¹ More interesting, however, is its now obsolete use, where Yule referred to the months of December or January. Although homophones (words which sound the same but mean something different) such as ball (a round object used in sports or a festivity where everybody dresses up all fancy) or (h)ours (a possessive vs. a unit of time measurement; remember, it is the sounds we’re looking at now, not spelling!) are quite common, one word which refers to multiple things at once are much more rare. Classes of objects can be argued to fall into this category (think, for example, of cookies or bags), but we generally modify these so that they refer to one specific thing after all (a chocolate chip cookie is not a shortbread cookie, and a plastic bag is not a cotton bag).
Originally, Yule did not refer to both December and January either, as it had also been modified in Old English. You had “ærre geola”, then, referred to December, as this was the period before yule – easy to guess when you recognize the Dutch word “eer” from “Bezint eer ge begint!” in “ærre”, no? January was “se æftera geola” - after yule (can you see how similar “æftera” and “after” look?! ).² Yule, then, referred to a specific time of the year. For the Anglo-Saxons, this specific time of the year was December 25th – the Winter Stolstice on the old Julian calendar. On the then shortest day of the year (the Julian calendar was shorter than the Gregorian one we now use, so the shortest day would have been December 25th and not December 21st), the Anglo-Saxons celebrated the start of a new year, when the earth would become fertile again.³ Can you see where this is going?
As with Halloween, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity is the main reason for the confluence of both holidays. When the mission of St. Augustine arrived in Britain in 597 A.D., the Anglo-Saxons already had the tradition of celebrating the Winter Stolstice – or Mother’s Night as they would have called it⁴ - on December 25th. This posed a problem for St. Augustine and his missionaries, as the church had decided that December 25th was the day on which Christ was born. On this day, they would celebrate by holding a “Cristes Mæsse”, or Christ’s Mass (and voilà! Christmas!). In order to help the Anglo-Saxons convert to Christianity, Augustine was encouraged to reform the celebrations of Yule into celebrations of Christmas.
In doing so, the Anglo-Saxon new year and Christianity’s celebration of Christ’s birth become one single holiday. And so, Christmas and Yule-tide now can be the same thing, even though historically they were two very different celebrations. Besides the etymology, there are many more traditions associated with Christmas that attest to this mixing of holidays.
The tradition of celebrating new year as we do on December 31st and January 1st, started with the installation of January 1st as the date on which the new year started. Before this, each people/society/culture had their own day on which the new year started. While there was no (agri)cultural significance for January 1st, there was a civil one. On this day, the new Roman consuls and senators would start on their term in the government. Earlier new year celebrations, such as those associated with Yule-tide for the Anglo-Saxons, were adopted in Christianity in order to facilitate conversion. As new year’s celebrations were a pagan practice, however, the Church made January 1st the feast of Christ’s circumcision.⁵
The now almost world-wide practice of welcoming the new year with lots of firework is suggested to be a Dutch tradition.⁶ Together with the lighting of bonfires (usually from old Christmas trees), the idea was that the fire and cacophony of loud noises purged the old year of evil spirits and misfortunes and let us start the new year with a clean slate. Even though the Netherlands is a small country on the world map, you have to remember that between the 16th and 18th century it was one of the great political powers in the world, with colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Dutch people lived in all the colonies, practicing Dutch traditions and making the colonies adopt them as well, it is no wonder that their way of celebrating New Year became widely spread.
While it is perfectly okay to enjoy these holidays without thinking about it – I certainly have up until writing the philology feature! – hopefully I have also shown you that they are worth some extra attention. Our traditions in celebrating these holidays go much further back than our family practices, and have a much longer history than our families themselves may have. And while for many holidays the story is largely the same – it was a pagan feast that become combined with a Christian celebration – you can dig up some interesting facts along the way. For example, did you know that the month January was named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces – one looking forward and one looking backward?⁷ Something as simple as the name of a month can be loaded with symbolism. Tune in next time, for another philology special specifically designed to brainwash you to getting the fun of philology! Or, as our own Thijs Porck put it, why words are worth loving!
by Aranka Leonard
1. "yule, n.". OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. 30 August 2013
3. Denning, Richard. “An Anglo-Saxon Christmas”. English Historical Fiction Authors. August 30, 2013.