Yuletide: The Christmas season

US armed forces Christmas greeting card, 1944, War in the Pacific
A greeting card from the War in the Pacific. Read more about it here.

Yule is a bit of an etymological orphan. The origins of the word are obscure, but it seems to have been the name of a twelve-day pagan winter festival, celebrated among the ancient speakers of the Germanic language family, and called jól in Old Norse*. As with many other pagan festivals, it was later hijacked by Christianity, so the word yule became synonymous with Christmas and Christmas celebrations. The only words it has spawned in English are compounds: yule-log (a log traditionally burned in the hearth at Christmas, and surely a relic of yule’s pagan past), yule-song (another name for Christmas carols), and of course yuletide—Christmas time.

The use of tide to mean “the time at which something happens” is ancient, and precedes its present meaning. So we have eventide, “evening time”; Christmastide, “Christmas time” and Lammastide, the Scottish Lammas festival on August 1st. And we used to have St Andrew’s tide, and similar names for all manner of other saint’s days; summer’s tide, and all the other seasons; and even April-tide, May-tide and so on through the months.

Something that happened in a timely manner was tidy. That word has gradually crept away from all association with time, at first coming to mean “satisfactory” (still with us in phrases like, “a tidy sum of money”), and finally “neat” or “orderly”.

Two archaic words that are still in occasional use preserve the original meaning of tide. If something betides you, it happens to you—nowadays, it seems to be only woe that betides anyone. And tidings are an announcement of something that has happened. In pleasing counterpoint to the woeful usage of betide, we have the Christmas phrase “good tidings of great joy” from the King James version of the gospel of Luke.

Round about the time of Chaucer, sailors began to refer to the times of high and low water at sea as the tides. (Prior to that, Old English had referred to the high water as flód and the low water as ebba—words that are with us still in the form of flood tide and ebb tide.) After a while, the association with time was lost, and the word tide became associated with the physical phenomenon itself.

But before that time, English had two words, time and tide, that meant approximately the same thing. The proverb “Time and tide wait for no man” has its origins during that period. So it has nothing to do with the tides of the sea—it’s warning us that time passes, and if we don’t get things done at their due time (their tide), we’ll have missed an opportunity that may not come again. (If you search the internet, you’d be forgiven for forming the idea that Geoffrey Chaucer originated the “time and tide” proverb. But he never wrote such a thing—what he did was to make references in his writing that suggest the phrase already existed in his time.)

Cover of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European RootsWhen we see two words with similar sounds and similar meanings, it’s usually telling us that they have a common origin, but have arrived in English by different routes. And that’s the story with time and tide. They both go back to a reconstructed Indo-European root that sounded something like di-, which was associated with the meaning “to divide”. There was also an Indo-European root used to form abstract nouns from verbal roots: ti-. So the Indo-European root di-ti-, “an abstract thing that divides”, is what flowed down through the old Germanic languages to give us Old English tid, “tide”. However, if you combined Indo-European di- with mon-, “neck”, you got di-mon-, “a physical thing that divides” and it was Indo-European di-mon- that evolved into Germanic ti-mon- and then Old English tima, “time”, shedding its physical nature somewhere along the way.

The story with di- is a little more complicated, though. Indo-European indulged in various vowel shifts to generate various bits of grammar, and di- is actually a variant of the basic form, da-. Another variant of the same root, dai-, when attached to mon-, “neck”, evolved into the  Greek’s word daimon, designating a supernatural spirit that existed in the divide between humans and gods. That gave us the English word demon, for an evil supernatural creature. But we preserve the Greek sense with a slightly different spelling—mon, for a supernatural creature that is not (necessarily) evil in intent. Philip Pullman used the latter word extensively in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

And, come to think of it, you could probably make a case for Santa’s elves being dæmons, too.

* Modern Pagans still celebrate Yule, usually on a single day around the Northern Winter solstice. Opinion varies on whether to use 21st December every year, or to track the astronomical solstice more closely as it flips back and forth between the 21st and the 22nd with the leap years.

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