Beginning today and running through to December 25th, I will be going through the alphabet to explain one English word per day relating to Christmas. This word may be a tradition, a traditional dish or simply one of my Christmas memories. Let’s start the countdown to Christmas.
I hope you learn some new words.
A – Advent
Advent (Avent en français) is the Christian period of waiting before the arrival of Jesus Christ. Traditionally Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas but people now tend to consider the 1st of December as the starting date.
B – Brandy Butter
What would Christmas be without brandy butter?
This sweet “”sauce”” which melts deliciously on hot pudding or mince pies is made with butter, icing sugar and brandy.
C’est tellement anglais qu’il n’y a pas de traduction !
C – Crackers
Christmas Crackers (Papillote suprise en français) are a staple at the Christmas dinner table. They are pulled apart with a resounding “cracking” sound at the beginning of the meal and usually contain a small toy, a joke and a colourful paper hat (which everyone has to wear).
D – Ding dong merrily on high
Ding Dong Merrily on High is one of my favourite Christmas hymns. In Ireland throughout the Christmas period these traditional songs can be heard in churches and concert halls during religious or non religious moments. Groups of singers used to knock on the doors and sing carols to families to collect money for charities.
E – Evergreen
Evergreen (sempervirent ou feuillage persistant en français). The Christmas tree or fir tree is an Evergreen. This means that it remains green all year round. Trees that lose their leaves are known as deciduous.
F – Frost
Frost (givre) is what makes the world look white when the night has been very cold (not snow).
People often make decorations with fake frost to give a winter atmosphere for Christmas.
G – G&T
For sure, everybody knows Gin & Tonic. But do you know how it was invented? The British armies in India discovered that quinine could help prevent malaria (paludisme). They began adding quinine to tonic water but, to hide the horrible taste, the soliders’ gin rations were added to it to make a palatable and medicinal cocktail. Nowadays tonic water contains a lower percentage of quinine but still has a slightly bitter flavour.
As an Irish person, I never thought I’d thank the British army for anything but…!!
H – Holly
Holly (houx) with its dark green leaves and bright red berries is a traditional winter plant. It is often used along with Ivy (lierre) for Christmas decorations.
“The Holly and the Ivy” is the name of a traditional British Christmas carol.
I – Icing
Have you ever seen a traditional English Christmas cake? It is usually decorated with white icing (glaçage) and may have little Christmas figures or decorations on it. Helping mums to make the Christmas cake used to be an important time for kids before Christmas.
J – Jumper or Christmas Jumper
Christmas Jumpers have only recently become a standard Christmas item of clothing. The uglier the better. In some countries there are even Christmas jumper days (journées pull de Noël) when you are expected to wear them to work or school. There are some real monstrosities out there!
K – Kids
Kids (les gamins) are particularly excited around Christmas. This word used especially in the US to talk about children is actually the word for baby goats (chevreaux)… This is probably no coincidence as both are lively and get up to a lot of mischief (font des bêtises).
L – Lights
Lights are an essential part of Christmas decorations (my favourite so far this year have got to be Avenue Montaigne in Paris). But did you know that the word “light” has many different meanings in English. Light can be used as a verb (alllumer): light a cigarette, light a fire… It is also the opposite to heavy (léger): to be as light as a feather. We can also use it to describe colours: light blue, light green…
M – Mince Pies
Mince Pies are one of my favourite Christmas foods. The original “mincemeat pies” contained minced meat, dried fruit and spices. More recently mince pies have become sweeter, with a mixture of dried fuits, spices, sugar and of course brandy. I love them best served hot with Brandy Butter (see B). I’ll be making mine on Sunday!
N – Neighbours
When I was growing up, Neighbours (les voisins) played an important part in our Christmas celebrations. Generally on Christmas Eve, my parents would invite some neighbours to our house for drinks and Mince Pies (see M).
I’m looking forward to a bit of festive neighbourly cheer with my own neighbours over the coming weeks.
O – Ornaments
Christmas ornaments (décorations de Noël) are everywhere at this time of year. In my house we used to make a lot of our ornaments and the best ones would be kept from year to year so that the house and the Christmas tree were full of memories.
P – Pudding (Christmas Pudding)
Yummy. You either love or hate Christmas Pudding. I love it. It is full of tasty dried fruits and alcohol and cooks for hours and hours. It is usually decorated with a sprig of Holly (see H), and flambéd at the dinner table. Always best served with Brandy butter (see B).
Q – Queen’s Christmas message
I grew up in Ireland where we didn’t have a monarchy. However we knew about the traditional Queen’s speech. Every Christmas day since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has been addressing the British nation to send out her good wishes for the coming year. The tradition began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by King George V, and is now broadcast on television, radio and the internet.
R – Reindeer
How would Santa manage without his Reindeer (les rennes, ou Caribou au Canada)? Did you know that reindeer became particularly popular after the poem The Night Before Christmas in which the reindeer are called: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Of course most people also know Rudolph from the song Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer. Let’s hope the sky is clear on Christmas eve so that we can see them flying overhead.
S – Snowman
Unfortunately in France we don’t see Snowmen (plural) often enough at Christmas. But one of my favourite Christmas books/films/music is “The Snowman” from the book by Ramond Briggs first published in 1978. It was made into a magical television film in 1982. The message, drawings and music are all masterpieces. If you haven’t seen the film, you really must put it on your list for this Christmas.
T – Trifle
Trifle is a traditional English dessert often associated with Christmas. It is made with layers of cake, fruit, custard and cream (so many different recipes possible). It should be made in a glass bowl so that it is as pretty as it is tasty. I was explaining Trifle to some French friends recently and was roped into making it for them today. It was a first for me!
U – Under the mistletoe
Mistletoe (du gui) is a plant often used as a decoration at Christmas time. It used to be considered as bringing good luck to the household and warding off evil spirits. Nowadays it is attached to the ceiling or to a door frame and tradition says that if two people are found standing Under the mistletoe, they must kiss. Mistletoe mixed with a few drinks at Christmas party… well let’s not go into details.
V – Visitors, visiting, visits
One of the great things about the Christmas period is visiting and visitors. Family, friends, neighbours, people like to visit each other for drinks or meals, or maybe event just a wintry walk. Christmas day itself is usually reserved for family members, but on boxing day (December 26th) people frequently visit friends and neighbours.
W – Wreath
Wreaths (les Couronnes) are often used to decorate the front door during the Advent and Christmas period. The origins and traditions of wreaths are varied around the world. They are often made from evergreens (plantes sempervirentes) as they symbolise strength, lasting throughout the harshest (les plus sévères) of winters.
X – Xmas
Xmas is a short version of the word Christmas. As Christmas actually means the mass of Christ, some people believe that the word Xmas is a means of removing the religious meaning from the word. However it appears that Xmas originated in writing in the 16th century, so it is very unlikely that this was the case. Whether it be Christmas or Xmas in your house… I hope it’s a good one for you.
Y – Yule
Yule was an ancient celebration of the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere. The sun had increased importance in the countries where the days are short and the winters long. This celebration preceded the Christian Christmas in Europe. The yuletide period runs from December 21st to January 1st.
Z – zzzZZZ
It’s been a long month! Time to sleep it off. Happy Holidays everybody!