Christmas Vocabulary (and a little bit of Christmas history)

It’s Christmas! In Catalan and Spanish, respectively, the holiday is known as Nadal and Navidad. This is an excellent example of why we need to use equivalent translation some times. The English word would be translated directly into these languages as “The mass of Christ,Christ refers to Jesus and mas is a shortened form of mass, which is missa or misa. In Catalan and Spanish the emphasis of the word is more on the “birth” (naixement/nacimiento). In addition, Americans wish each other a “Merry Christmas” while speakers of British English say “Happy Christmas!”  “Merry” would be translated into Catalan and Spanish as alegre, and “happy” is feliç or feliz. But they all mean the same thing!

It is also common to see Christmas referred to as Yule or Noel especially in the United States.  This is due to the history of immigration that has occurred in the country. “Yule” is the Nordic word for the season and “Noel” is French.

What to call the sixth of January is another good question. Technically, it is Epiphany.  It is a church holy day.  However, in Shakespeare’s time it was called “the Twelth Night,” which actually was the night of January 5th.  It was the final celebration of the traditional season of Christmas, which lasted 12 days.  The popular Christmas song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrates this perfectly.  In New Orleans, January 6th is the start of Mardi Gras or Carnival.  It is called King’s Day there, but in singular. (The plural would be Kings’ Day) Also, because of the large Latino population in the United States many areas, especially Miami, celebrate “The Feast of the Three Kings.”

Another Christmas word is “eve.” It comes from the English word “evening,” the part of the day between afternoon and night.  “Eve,” however, would be translated as vigília in Catalan and as víspera in Spanish. So, “Christmas Eve” is nochebuena, and “New Year’s Eve” would be nit de cap d’any or nochevieja. “Happy New Year!” is what you say at midnight.

“Santa Claus” in the U.S. or “Father Christmas” in the U.K. is the personality who is in charge of distributing the gifts and presents. He arrives in a magic sleigh/sled (trineu/trineo) pulled by flying reindeer (ren/reno) from the North Pole where he has a factory full of elves (fades/duendes) who help him make all the toys.  The name “Santa Claus” technically refers to Saint Nicolas, who in Dutch tradition brings gifts for the children.  This is another example of how immigration influenced Christmas traditions in the U.S.

Even though the Christmas tree is the center of Christmas, many families also put up a “Nativity scene” in the U.S. or a “Creche” in the U.K. (Pessebre) These will have figures of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus in a crib (bressol/cuna) inside the manger (pessebre) surrounded by shepherds (pastors/pastores) and angels and The Three Wise Men (Els reis mags/Los reyes magos). Notice that in English they are not kings but wise men (savis/sabios)

Other common words are:

  • Wreath: Corona / Corona
  • Present/Gift: Regal Regalo
  • Ribbon: Cinta Cinta
  • Christmas tree: Arbre de Nadal Árbol de Navidad
  • Christmas stocking: Mitges de Nadal Calcetín navideño
  • Christmas pudding: Postre nadalenc Pudín de Navidad
  • Christmas card: Postal de Nadal Postal de Navidad
  • Boxing Day: 26 decembre 26 diciembre

Caganers and Caga Tío don’t have direct translations into English.  You will have to explain them as “figures of people shitting” and “the Christmas log.” Many times it is better to use the Catalan or Spanish word and then explain what it is.  For example, sopa de galets is a traditional Christmas soup made with large pasta shells, or carn d’olla is a traditional Catalan Christmas soup made with meat or sausages.  And remember!  Even if there isn’t a direct translation, it’s Christmas… so just enjoy yourselves!

Merry Christmas!

Aston School

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