Have yourself a merry little update: the March 2020 OED release notes

Have yourself a merry little update: the March 2020 OED release notes

Christmas has come particularly early this year, as the latest OED update includes a revision of Christmas and its near neighbours. Some of the changes are due to expressions that have arisen since the entry for Christmas was first published in 1889, such as Christmas comes early (1919), Christmas number one (1973) and the edible variety of Christmas log (1925). Christmas in July (1917) was completely new to me: this denotes a Christmas-like celebration held in the summer—or, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, the winter, with which Christmas has always been traditionally associated.

A number of expressions were mentioned in passing in the first edition of the OED (OED1) but have now been given separate treatment, such as Christmas dinner, Christmas hamper, and Christmas shopping; Christmas carol, pleasingly, turns out to have been around since 1521, and Christmas lights since 1597, although obviously not in their current electric form. Christmas stocking (1853) had been omitted entirely by OED1, as had Christmas cracker, but both are now included. The original ‘Christmas cracker’ (recorded around 1817, but apparently practised forty or more years earlier) was a rather alarming practical joke played by blacksmiths’ assistants on each other: a gun barrel was filled with water, stopped up, and placed on the fire, where it would eventually produce a sound like a firework when the water turned to steam and violently escaped. I can’t imagine this going down well at a traditional Christmas dinner.

One rather surprising discovery is that Christmas card originally meant something quite different. Our research traced the familiar sense (a greetings card sent at Christmas) back to 1860; this is somewhat later than might have been expected, since cards of this type had been mass-produced by Sir Henry Cole in the 1840s, but it can sometimes take a while for what (with hindsight) appears to be the optimal name for something to be coined. It was quite a shock, however, to be confronted with this quotation from a December edition of the Hull Advertiser, in 1832:

The total amount of benevolent income during the year, including..the contributions from auxiliaries, and the produce of Christmas cards, amount to 3374l. 6s 7d.

This could just conceivably be taken as referring to the practice of selling charity Christmas cards, but this seemed extremely unlikely. In 1832 there were, as far as we know, no Christmas-themed greetings cards. Further investigation turned up several more quotations of this type, mostly in newspapers, between the mid 1830s and the early 1860s, and it became clear that this was another kind of card entirely: a piece of card which was circulated at Christmas for people to write their names and how much they pledged to donate towards some charitable cause, not unlike a sponsorship form for a fun run or similar activity nowadays. The most recent evidence we could find is from 1861, just one year after the earliest known attestation of the ‘greetings card’ sense, but after this date the number of examples of the compound, hitherto relatively small, skyrockets, and it is clear that the earlier sense has been comprehensively outcompeted.

I particularly enjoyed working on Christmas tree, which, as we all know, was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert—except it wasn’t. The British royal court had a decorated tree as early as 1789, and the ‘Christmas tree’ is named as such in an Edinburgh magazine published in 1826. The practice became increasingly familiar in the United Kingdom throughout the nineteenth century, but the Christmas tree did not become a fixture in the average home until the twentieth century; that is to say, after the OED1 entry was first published. In the United States, on the other hand, it was adopted much more quickly, possibly due to the influence of German immigrants.

The most amusing story I encountered while working on this range is associated with Christ-tide. OED1 defined this simply as ‘Christmas’, and I expected that after revision it would end up with much the same definition as at Christmastide, something like ‘the period around Christmas Day’—which it did, but with an important qualification. Christ-tide was coined at a time of increasing religious tension: some of the more fervent Protestants of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were so keen to avoid anything with Catholic associations that even the word ‘Christmas’, containing as it does the word ‘Mass’, was objectionable. This sensitivity is parodied in the reaction of the Puritan Ananias in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist:

Subtle: And, then, the turning of this Lawyers pewter

To plate, at Christ-masse.

Ananias: Christ-tide, I pray you.

The word has been little used since the seventeenth century and is now archaic, but the story goes that in the nineteenth century, an MP by the name of Thomas Massey-Massey was so filled with the fervour of his Puritan forebears that, in a speech in the House of Commons, he demanded that Christmas be renamed Christ-tide—and was dismissed by an inquiry as to why, if he felt so strongly about this, he hadn’t changed his own name to Thotide Tidey-Tidey! Sadly, this is definitely apocryphal: Thomas Massey-Massey never existed, and the credit for silencing him has been given to a wide range of politicians, from Daniel O’Connell to Benjamin Disraeli. But it is such a neat pricking of pomposity that its fictionality is almost irrelevant.

Revising these entries was a delight, not only because of the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, but because I imagined how much it would have pleased my grandfather, for whom Christmas and its traditions were a source of great joy. Every year, his Christmas tree would be set up on the first of December (for him, the earliest permissible date) and decorated with great patience and attention—and quantity: we used to joke that he had enough decorations to cope with the Trafalgar Square tree. Looking back again over the Christmas words, what strikes me is the strong sense of tradition that they evoke, which in turn calls up memories of Christmases gone by; or perhaps it is truer to say that they are all, somehow, the same Christmas, each instance building on the foundations of the past.

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