Spelacchio, Yankee Swap, and Boxing Day: Some holiday etymologies

Over on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I’ve written some pieces that will get you in the holiday spirit.

For my latest Weekly Word Watch, I featured the Italian word spelacchio:

The official Christmas tree of the city of Rome, imported from the Italian Alps at a cost of over £42,000, has been shedding its needles, so much so that locals have nicknamed the not-so-evergreen evergreen spelacchio, meaning ‘mangy’ or ‘threadbare’. The word appears to derive from roots meaning ‘out of hair’ (pelo, hair, cf. depilatory).

Spelacchio inspired a hashtag – even its own Twitter account.

 And just as quickly as it was a term of derision, spelacchio became a term of endearment, with Romans leaving Christmas cards for the ‘balding’ tree. How very 2017, spelacchio. How very 2017, indeed.

I also explored the origins of the names of popular gift exchanges, like Yankee Swap, which has a surprising connection to Walt Whitman:

In a standard Yankee Swap gift exchange, each merrymaker brings a wrapped gift (often thematic and price-capped) to a party and draws numbers to determine what order when they get to pick from the pool. The first to draw opens the gift for all to see, and subsequent players can then pick from the remaining items or steal an already opened gift, all vying to end the festivities with a gift they like.

Many myths surround the lexical beginnings of the Yankee Swap. One commonly claims the name is taken from a Civil War tradition of swapping Union Army prisoners of war, dubbed Yankees, for their Confederate counterparts over Christmas. Another puts forth the theory that immigrants in New York City were bemused by all the locals exchanging little gifts – Yankees, swapping – with one another throughout the Christmas season. (Yankee has its own fascinating and complicated history, but we’ll save that story for another time.)

Clever, but only true insofar as Yankee Swap hails from America, as its name would suggest.

Thankfully, word sleuth Peter Jensen Brown has done some deep digging and found that the phrase Yankee Swap was first used in reference to a stereotypic American appetite for trading. In a review of his own masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, the great poet Walt Whitman sings of ‘the Yankee swap’ as one of the ‘essences of American things’ alongside George Washington and the Constitution. Brown also finds a Scottish magazine describing the purported American love of the barter and bargain:

Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee.  He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them.  He will ‘swap’ any thing with you; ‚trade’ with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.

Brown hasn’t pinned down when it was first called a Yankee Swap, but he finds evidence for a festive and ‘old fashioned swapping party’ in an 1899 New York Tribune article as well as an extensive description in 1901 of a ‘swap party’ in a magazine, Table Talk:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.

Read the rest of the article for the lexical history of the Secret Santa and White Elephant traditions. Here’s some extra content that didn’t make the original article:

Kris Kindle and Kris Kringle

Secret Santa appears to be an American phrase and custom adopted elsewhere in the world. You may also hear the exchange going by the equally alliterative but less culturally connotative Secret Snowflake.

And in Ireland, for example, you may hear colleagues conducting a Kris Kringle or Kris Kindle around the office. These alternative appellations for a secret santa originate in German words like Christkind’l, literally ‘Christ child’, who’s the seasonal gift-giver in many European and Latin American countries.

Some German-speaking immigrants to early Pennsylvania in the US spoke a dialect that became Pennsylvanian Dutch. They had Chris-krinkle, a Santa Claus figure whose name comes from Christkind’l and becomes Kris Kringle by1830.

Boxing Day

Finally, a little Christmas bonus — and this one to educate the Americans. Observed as a bank holiday the first weekday after Christmas Day, the UK-originating Boxing Day has nothing to do with fisticuffs. The OED first cites it in 1833 and roots the name in the tradition of the Christmas box, dated to 1611 in a gloss on a similar French custom, tirelire. This container, or box, historically collected tips for various servants and apprentices. It was often an earthenware vessel, broken open when full and its contents shared among workers.

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