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 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 mean “seven,” “eight,” and “nine,” even though they’re our ninth, tenth, and eleventh months. Our brain hurts.
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.
Old names for December
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 12 days—the 12 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 bah humbug spirits!