The Origin of December


December is here: store fronts are festooned with holiday decorations, and another year is reaching its close. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you might be pulling off your boots so you can curl up with a good book next to the fireplace (or the radiator, or the heat vent).

December has marked the end of the year and the coming of winter since the ancient Romans established their first calendar. As its etymology indicates, December is formed from the Latin root decem- whic means “ten,” but December is our twelfth month. The strange numbering discrepancy is also present for the months of September, October, and November, which mean “seven,” “eight,” and “nine,” even though they’re our ninth, tenth, and eleventh months.

Why? Well, the ancient Roman calendar only had ten months in the year, beginning with the month of March. January and February were eventually added after December, to the end of the year. But by the time the Julian calendar was established in 45 B.C., January and February appeared at the beginning of the year, which bumped all of the original months (and their originally assigned names) back by two.

Before December entered Old English, the terms for December were Ǣrra Gēola or Gēolmōnað, meaning “yule month.” The early Germanic people celebrated the mid-wintery season during a time that was called yuletide, a two-month period that spanned December and January. With the rise of Christianity, the yule was condensed and adopted into the liturgical year under the Christian name Christmastide, which begins on Christmas day and lasts a total of twelve days—the twelve days of Christmas. Our memory of the yule may be limited to yule logs, but every time Santa is described as “jolly,” remember the fact that “jolly” may have derived from the same Old Norse root that brought us yule.

Even if we no longer call it the “yule month,” the association we have with December and holidays hasn’t diminished. If you’re facing another cold winter, celebrating the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve is sure to lift your spirits!

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