Do You Know the Meaning of These Old-Timey Christmas Words?


By: Beth Hendricks

6 Min Quiz

Image: Michael Greenwood/Moment/Getty Images

About This Quiz

What comes to mind when you think of Christmas? Decorated trees, wrapped gifts, holiday parties and maybe ... Drafchenfutter? No? OK, admittedly, that last one is a bit of an outlier, but that's what this quiz is all about: Vintage Christmas words that have perhaps fallen out of favor ... or at least popular vernacular.

Think about all the slightly odd words that appear just in Christmas carols: "Tannenbaum" and "frankincense" and "decking the halls with boughs of holly." And, don't forget the "mistletoes," "wassails" and "yules" of the season. Phew, you almost need a Christmas translator just to figure out what all of it means! 

The history of these old-timey Christmas words runs the gamut, from religious references to historically-significant terms dating back as far as the 11th century. And, let's be honest: Some are even older than that. Frankincense, after all, was present at the very first Christmas all those years ago.

Now we want to see if you've got what it takes to decipher these once-a-year holiday words! Use your frankin-"sense" and dive into Santa's bag to match these terms with their definitions. Do you know what a nativity is? How about a dreidel? Can you discern your "fyore" from your "crump?" Sleigh this Christmas quiz!

It only sounds monstrous, but it's actually an aromatic product that comes from the resin of a tree. Which of these had a famous recipient?

You've probably heard about the gifts the wise men presented to baby Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh – but never really known what it was. Frankincense is a prized fragrant oil that many believe contains health benefits and medicinal properties.


You've probably seen poinsettias somewhere during the holiday season. What does that word mean?

The poinsettia was named after a diplomat with the last name "Poinsett," who is believed to have brought the plant to the United States. You're probably acquainted with its red flowers, although these are technically the plant's leaves.


Which of these would you get if you ordered "wassail" at the coffeehouse during the holiday season?

Wassail is a holiday word we think needs to make a resurgence. Sure, you could ask for hot cider, but doesn't "wassail" sound more exquisite? There's even a Christmas carol with the lyric, "Here we come a-Wassailing ..." a not-so-subtle request for a hot drink for cold carolers.


A big part of the Christmas story was a visit from the Magi. What does "Magi" mean?

The Magi were priests from ancient Persia who traveled to Bethlehem to bestow gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – on Jesus after his birth. We are more accustomed to hearing them referred to as the three wise men, but Magi is also appropriate.


If someone asks you for "eggnog" at a Christmas party, what are they after?

Eggnog came by the "egg" part honestly, with versions combining some amount of eggs, cream and sugar. The idea of "nog," however, is rooted in medieval Britain where the term represented a type of ale or beer. Leave it to us today to combine the two into one glorious holiday drink.


Don't get it tangled: What is Christmas "tinsel"?

The word "tinsel" dates back to the 16th century when it was used as an iridescent component for other fabrics. We now recognize tinsel as sparkly colorful fabric or material, most frequently used on Christmas trees or in holiday decor.


At Christmas, even a fir tree has its very own holiday term. What is it?

Have you heard the Christmas carol, "O Tannenbaum"? Alternately, you may have heard "O Christmas Tree." Guess what? They are one and the same. "Tannenbaum" is a word to describe a fir tree, a common version of the Christmas tree.


The Christmas carol, "O Come, O Come _________," is missing another term for Jesus. What is it?

The name "Emmanuel" translates to "God with us," but it is used in the Bible and around the holidays in various Christmas tunes, including the one referenced in this question.


It's "Joy To The World" now, but years ago, it referred to any type of festive tune. What word is it?

Turns out, "carol" is much more than just a woman's name. The term "carol" around the holiday season is used to signify songs like, "Joy To The World," "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and "Jingle Bells," all festive holiday songs. The word is believed to come from the Greek "khoraules," which translates loosely to "flute player."


Counting down the days until Christmas? Which of these indicates the period of time before the big day actually hits?

Have you ever had an Advent calendar? Typically filled with chocolates or small treats, these calendars allow you to count down the days until Christmas by opening one calendar door at a time. Advent — the four Sundays before Christmas — means Christmas is coming.


Several Christmas songs mention Jesus wrapped in this type of cloth when he was a baby. Which word is it?

If you've ever had a child, you probably already recognized "swaddling" from the "swaddling clothes" in which Mary wrapped baby Jesus. Swaddling clothes, back in Jesus' day, would have been strips of fabric wrapped snugly around an infant to help keep him still. Of course, today we have swaddling garments that make that task a lot simpler.


The Christmas carol, "In The Bleak Midwinter," references "cherubim and seraphim," but what are they?

"In The Bleak Midwinter" is a little-known Christmas carol based on the words of a Christina Peretti poem. In it, she references "cherubim and seraphim," which are words used to describe heavenly bodies or angels.


A New Year's question for good measure: What is missing from this phrase? Auld ______ Syne – It's a word that means "times long past."

It began as a Scottish poem by Robert Burns and was later set to music that gets sung on New Year's Eve. "Auld Lang Syne" essentially means "times long past" or "days gone by." It's a good thought heading into a new year.


You can appear hip (or not) to all your friends by using this word in place of Christmas. What is it?

The word "yule" is traced back to an Old Norse word that signified the period of time just before Christmas. Years later, others would adopt the word to signify not only Christmas but also the period of time just before – and after – the holiday.


Do you want to get specific with the type of Christmas tree you'd like? You might choose which of these words?

The word "balsam" isn't technically a Christmas word, although it is often used to describe a specific type of tree – the balsam fir – that is frequently used for decorating and placing gifts under. Sound familiar?


"Oh ho, the mistletoe ..." is part of the song, "Holly Jolly Christmas," but what is mistletoe?

Mistletoe has long been used at Christmas as a reason to kiss your sweetie. The tradition dates pretty far back in history thanks to the belief it contributed positively to fertility. Not to be a downer, but real mistletoe is a parasite that attaches itself to other plants.


Test your song lyric smarts: Where were the bells hung in "Jingle Bells"?

"Bells on bobtail ring ..." You've probably sung that a few hundred times in your life but maybe never knew its origins. A "bobtail" is a closely-trimmed tail on a horse, helpful to keep it from getting caught in the reins of the rider or driver.


If you deck your halls with "boughs" of holly, what are you decorating with?

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly ..." But what is a bough? A bough is a branch from a tree. So, when you're pulling out boughs of holly, you're decorating with branches of holly. Quite merry!


Here's one for our friends who celebrate Hanukkah! What is a "dreidel"?

Children and adults alike may play with a dreidel during Hanukkah. A dreidel is a four-sided top which is outfitted with Hebrew letters on each side. It is used as part of a gambling game during the season.


What are you being asked to do in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," when the word "hark" is used?

How are your listening, or should we say "harking," skills? That's what the word "hark" means in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It means stop and listen to what the angels have to say. The word comes from Old English roots.


You might use this term to describe the entire holiday season. Which of these is actually derived from a one-time heathen feast?

When the word "yuletide" came into use in the 15th century, it was reserved for a heathen feast. Christians then took it over to describe the period surrounding Christmas and its festivities. “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir …" Sound familiar?


In the 16th century, they called it "belly-cheer." What would we call this Christmas word today?

"Belly-cheer" just sounds like fun, doesn't it? Who doesn't want belly-cheer? This term dates back to the 16th century, and it has a pretty simple explanation. It means great food or feast, definitely a holiday tradition.


"We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" both mention "tidings," but they don't explain what it is. So ... what is it?

Someone who has glad "tidings" has good news or information to share. The word "tidings" is not too obscure, but it does appear in multiple Christmas tunes and is not used regularly in speech today. So, now you know!


Speaking of that magi-cal visit, which of these terms is used to commemorate that occasion?

In some Christian circles, the Magi's visit to baby Jesus is commemorated in an event known as the Epiphany. It is celebrated 12 days after Christmas and is usually recognized in some type of feast or celebration on January 6. Count us in!


In "A Visit From St. Nicholas," sugar-plums were dancing in the children's heads. What are "sugar-plums"?

In Clement Clarke Moore's famous "A Visit From St. Nicholas," the children are asleep with visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads. Sugar-plums are much more sugar than fruit; in fact, they might remind you of an M&M or candy-coated almond.


"The first Noël, the angels did say ..." Do you know what "Noël" means?

“The first Noël, the angels did say …” is the opening line of the Christmas carol, "The First Noël." The term is simply used as a replacement or synonym for Christmas, and we'd say the very first Christmas was a pretty big deal.


We like our Christmases with some "fyole." Which does "fyole" mean?

There's nothing better than a fyole on Christmas; that is, a light covering of snow when everything is just barely dusted with the white stuff. Of course, we hope it clears up quickly, too, so we can get outdoors!


You might create one of these by accident when you're building a snowman. What word means "a large ball of snow created by rolling a smaller one"?

The etymology of the word "hogamadog" tells us that the term actually references the tiny critter we know as a snail. That's appropriate, given how a hogamadog is formed, by rolling a small snowball around until it forms a huge one (similar to the curly shell of a snail).


This obscure term isn't necessarily Christmas-related, but who doesn't love wrapping up cozily in bed when the weather outside is frightful? Which term are we talking about?

To "snerdle" means to get wrapped up in bed in a cozy fashion. Now, we're not saying you can't snerdle anywhere and anytime you please, but there's nothing better than a good snerdle when the temps are dropping and snow is falling. Wouldn't you agree?


If you give someone "present-silver" at Christmas, what have you given them?

If you prefer to give (and receive) cash instead of an actual Christmas gift, you're not alone. In fact, this old-timey Christmas word, "present-silver," was used specifically for those who gave money as a gift.


You might visit a live "Nativity" at Christmas, but do you know what that word means?

You wouldn't call just any birth a nativity (although you could), but Christians use it around Christmastime to signify the birth of Jesus. The word is derived from the Latin, "nativus," which simply means birth. Some people choose to display Nativity arrangements in their homes around the holidays.


Are you a Christmas "yuleshard"? Don't be offended; many people are. What is it?

We're calling it now! The term "yuleshard" needs to make a comeback. A yuleshard is someone who is still prepping for Christmas on Christmas Eve (read: procrastinator), and we know more than a few folks who fit that description.


There's no such thing as a bad gift, right?If someone gives you a "toe-cover," what have you received?

This is an odd one, for sure. A "toe-cover" is a term that has been used since the 1940s to signify a gift that is both cheap and useless. Why it references toes we may never know! Does this mean we shouldn't gift socks?


Bad behavior will get you on the naughty list and also earn you one of these, an old Scottish word for a spanking. What is it?

Santa may have come and gone, but bad behavior on Christmas Day is still grounds for a swat on the bottom in some cultures. An old Scottish word for this action, yule-skrep meant a swift spanking, specifically one administered at Christmas.


Thumbs down to "drachenfutter" at the holidays. What does that word mean?

We mentioned it at the beginning of this quiz – drachenfutter. Sounds a little menacing, doesn't it? That's because it translates, quite literally, to "dragon-feed." In the context of gift-giving, however, it refers to a gift given to a woman by her husband in an attempt to placate her. Hey! Give from the heart or not at all, we say.


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