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How The Month Of December Got Its Name

Ah, December, that time of year when storefronts are festooned with holiday decorations, and another year is reaching its close. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, December might mean pulling off your boots so you can curl up with your smartphone and read Dictionary.com (hey, we can dream).

But, what does the word December mean in the dictionary? And, where did the 12th month of the year get its name?

What is December named for?

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- which means “ten” … but December is our twelfth month. The strange numbering discrepancy is also present for the months of September, October, and November, which reference “seven,” “eight,” and “nine,” even though they’re our ninth, tenth, and eleventh months.

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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 BCE, 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.

What are the older names for December?

Before December entered Old English, the names Ǣrra Gēola or Gēolmōnað, meaning “yule month,” were used. The early Germanic people referred to this wintry season as yuletide, a two-month period that spanned December and January. Geōl means “Christmas day” or “Christmastide” (a word for the period from Christmas Eve to related feast days in early January).

Geōl is related to the Old Norse jōl, the name of the Pagan winter feast lasting 12 days. Many of the customs of the feast of yule influenced the ways that Christmas is celebrated, such as the tradition of burning a yule log at Christmastime. Fun fact: the word jolly may have derived from the same Old Norse root that brought us yule.

What else has Old Norse brought us? Learn which words trace back to Old Norse here.

What do we celebrate in December?

If you’re facing another cold winter, celebrating the winter solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s Eve is sure to lift your “bah humbug” spirits! As you revel in the season, you might wonder what the different names for Santa Claus are or what figgy pudding is, or what Boxing Day (December 26) actually is.

If you’re also celebrating a birthday in December, you might be a Sagittarius (born before December 22) and known as a trailblazer or an innovator. We have more words for Sagittarius here, and we’ve also got words for the zodiac sign of Capricorn, for those born on or after December 22.

Fight the chill with some red-hot knowledge on the origins of another winter month, January.

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