Merry, Tidings, Noel – Common Christmas Phrases and Their Origins


By Daniel Bobinski

Longtime readers of my column know I’m kind of a word junkie. Words have meanings, and therefore words are important. This is especially true when someone asks me about my preferred Bible translation, because I always say, “The original language.” The deep wealth of meaning in the Greek and Hebrew words open up Scripture in rich and powerful ways.

For the record, I’m definitely no expert in Greek. However, I like resources such as and The Complete Word Study New Testament combined with The Complete Word Study Dictionary (both by Spiros Zodhiates). These tools allow for a rich study of God’s Word. I should add that both of those books I just mentioned would make excellent Christmas gifts for anyone wishing to understand the Bible in more depth.

Those who tracked my nearly three-year study of love in this space know that I always look to the Greek to see what a word really means. There isn’t a single translation anywhere in any language that “gets it right” all the time, so there’s absolutely nothing wrong with digging into the original language when one wants to understand something clearly.

With that in mind, the Christmas season is nigh upon us, so I thought I’d take a fun excursion into the history of words and explore the origins and meanings of common words and phrases we hear this time of year.

Good Tidings. Tidings is thought of as a greeting by some, but it’s actually an 800-year-old word that means the “announcement of an event.” The word tiding is derived from the Old English word tidung, which meant “an event, an occurrence, or a piece of news.” Similarly, the Dutch word tijding means “message” and the German word Zeitung means “newspaper.”

In a Christmas context, “good tidings of great joy” echoes the announcement by the angel to the shepherds in the fields about the birth of Jesus: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Bah Humbug. Universally associated with the character Ebeneezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol,” the phrase “Bah Humbug” was known as an exclamation of curmudgeonly displeasure even 90 years before Dickens’s novel appeared in 1843. tells us the phrase’s origin is unknown, but in its early uses (in the 1750’s), “a humbug was a ‘trick’ or a ‘hoax.’”

By the time the 1800’s rolled around, Humbug conferred a sense of deceit and a sense of nonsense, and nearly half a century later, when Dickens used it, was an exclamation of contempt or annoyance.

Today, Humbug conveys a message of anti-holiday cheer, and is most often associated with curmudgeons. The word “Bah” first started getting used in the early 1800’s, and has always been an expression of contempt, annoyance, or dismissiveness. It’s use probably stems from the Old French word, “ba,” which was an expression of scorn or dismay.

Merry Christmas. The word merry is derived from the Old English word myrge, which means “pleasing, agreeable, pleasant, sweet, exciting feelings of enjoyment and gladness.”  That’s pretty straightforward, especially when it’s joined with the word “Christmas.”

The word Christmas has kind of a two-stage history. It started as the Old English phrase Cristes maesse, which was constructed from the words for “Christ” and “mass,” just as we are often told. The phrase refers to the “Church festival observed annually in memory of the birth of Christ.” The phrase was used for centuries as two separate words and was not joined into one word until the mid-1300’s.

It should be noted that the early church did not celebrate Christmas. Celebrating someone’s birth was considered a pagan practice, and the church often acknowledged martyrs by the date of their death. Accordingly, early Christians were more concerned about the death of Christ and His resurrection.

It wasn’t until the third century that interest arose in when Jesus was born. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Pope Julius I arbitrarily assigned December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth.

As a side note, many claim the use of “Xmas” is a derogatory or blasphemous substitute of the word Christmas, indicating that the “X” crosses out or “exes” out the word “Christ.” This is a false teaching. The use of Xmas comes from the Greek spelling of Christ, which is Χριστός (pronounced Khrīstos). The “X” in Greek – the letter chi – is an abbreviation for Christ, and the use of Xmas in Christian literature dates back at least to 1100 AD.

Noel. Many say that Noel is the French word for Christmas, and that’s pretty accurate. It’s actually an Old French word from the 14th century that means, “the Christmas season.” The Old French word noel is actually a derivative from the Latin word natalis, which was used in Latin masses to reference the birthday of Christ, which was taken from Old Latin gnasci, which meant  “to be born.” Our modern English word nascent is also derived from that Old Latin meaning.

With that, may you turn more of your attention to the One who came from Heaven to earth and rest in Him. As Jesus predicted, we live now in a world where evil is considered good and good is considered evil. Deception is all around us. But Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and because of His birth, life, death, and resurrection, we can have eternal life with Him, simply by asking for it. It’s that easy.

Merry Christmas, everybody.


Daniel Bobinski, Th.D., is an award-winning and best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at [email protected] or (208) 375-7606.

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