Where Did the Continents Get Their Names?

Where did each of the seven continents get their names? The answer involves the sunrise and sunset, a big bear and a little bear, and three mythological queens.


Africa is the oldest inhabited territory on the planet. Many peoples of Africa, including the Ethiopians, Nubians, Moors, and Numidians, anciently referred to the landmass as Alkebulan—a name that meant “mother of mankind.” Other peoples variously called it Corphye, Ortigia, Libya, or Ethiopia.

The name Africa came about from ancient Romans and Greeks who sought to describe the lands across the Mediterranean Sea—and who generalized from their experience of only a small part of the continent.

There are several possible origins for the name Africa:

  • Afri was the name of a tribe native to Libya that become the Latin word used to describe all the inhabitants of northern Africa west of the Nile. It originates from the Berber word ifri, meaning “cave” and designating the Afri as cave dwellers. The Latin suffix -ica (or possibly -terra) was then added to denote “a land.”
  • The Greek word aphrike means the land “without cold.”
  • The Roman word aprica means “sunny.”
  • The Phoenicians may have called it the “land of corn and fruit,” or friqi and pharika.
  • The Arabic word afar (“dust”) or afir (“dried up by the sun”) may have been the root that led to the words afara (“to be dusty”) and afrīqā.

Additional theories attempt to trace the name of Africa, but the most sound of those known today is the Latin Afri-ica.


Like the other continents, there are several theories as to the origin of the name Europe.

The first and most common is that it comes from Europa of Greek mythology. Europa was a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. She had three sons with him, including King Minos of Crete. In Greek thought, lands and rivers were often associated with female figures or watched over by a goddess, making Europa the patron of the European continent. Europa as a geographic term is first found in a Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, referencing the western shore of the Aegean Sea.

Europa and the Bull – Red-Figure Stamnos, Tarquinia Museum, ca. 480 BCE.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Europa comes from the words eurus, meaning “wide, broad,” and ops, meaning “eye, face, countenance.” Together, the word indicates a broad countenance. Words meaning broad had been used as an epithet for the Earth as a divine figure in Proto-Indo-European religion.

Another theory seeks a Semitic root for Europe. The Akkadian term erebu, meaning “west” and therefore an association with sunset, may have been the origin for Europe. Europe was the land of the setting sun, in contrast to asu, the “east” or “country of sunrise.”


As mentioned previously, the land of Asia may have been named Asu for the word for “east” or “sunrise.”

However, there are other proposed etymologies. The concept of Asia came from Greek civilization, which divided the world then known to them into Europe, Asia, and Libya. It was thought that these three names all derived from Greek queens: Europa (Princess of Phoenicia who had a relationship with Zeus), Asia (a nymph or titan who was married to Prometheus, the god of fire), and Libya (Queen Libya or Lamia of Egypt, who bore two sons with Poseidon).

The ancient Greek word asia was first used to refer to the eastern bank of the Aegean Sea as well as the region of Anatolia. The Romans used this term to refer to Lydia. It is thought that asia came from the Aegean word asis, meaning “muddy” as a descriptor of the shores of the Aegean Sea. A Hittite group of 22 ancient states in Asia Minor formed a confederation called Assuwa, which may have been informed by the existing word asia.

In eastern Asia, Chinese, Korean, and Mongol civilizations, among others, had their own names for their territory. Asia was later extended to include all of the continent of Asia we know today.

North and South America

The indigenous peoples of the Americas each had a name for the place they called home. The Mohawk people called it “Anowara:kowa,” meaning the Great Turtle. The Wendat likewise may have referred to the land with a word meaning Turtle Island—both owing to a rich mythological tradition that viewed the earth as a turtle that rose from the sea. The Mexica nation knew the land of North America as Anahuac, which means “close to us.” This signifies the deep connection between the land and the people’s hearts and kinship ties. Further, in some areas of South America, Abya Yala was the term used for the land, and it means “Land of Full Maturity,” “Land of Life,” or “Fruitful Land.”

During the Age of Exploration, Spanish explorers initially referred to this area as the Indies, believing incorrectly that it was part of eastern Asia.

The name that was eventually given to these indigenous lands by European conquerors was the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was an Italian merchant and navigator who set sail for the lands across the Atlantic from 1497 to 1504, landing in what is now Brazil. He embarked on two voyages under the flags of Portugal and Spain and purportedly produced two brochures with fantastical descriptions of the lands he explored. Though these accounts have been called into question, they were important for raising awareness about the “New World,” as he called it.

At the time, Vespucci explored what is now South America. Most of North America was still unknown to Europeans. In 1507, the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller honored Vespucci’s accomplishments by naming these lands America, using a Latinized form of Amerigo. Waldseemüller produced a long-awaited world map that updated geographic knowledge following from the Age of Exploration. Later cartographers followed suit, and the landmass was officially named America by 1532. Vespucci likely didn’t even know about Waldseemüller’s map before his death in 1507. However, many supporters of Christopher Columbus at the time felt that the continents of the New World should have been named after him and that Vespucci or his supporters had stolen the spotlight.

The Italian name Amerigo means “home ruler.” The Spanish name Colón, or Columbus, means “dove.” Neither one adequately expresses what the New World was to the European settlers—it was not their home, and it surely was not a place of peace.

In the English-speaking world, America was used to refer to the entire landmass from Canada to Chile, which was considered a single continent. This served the United States’ geopolitical interests as it sought to dominate the Western Hemisphere. It wasn’t until the 1950s that geographers in the United States insisted on separating North America and South America.

Today, some indigenous peoples in America—who peopled these lands long before European explorers, conquistadors, and colonizers stepped foot—object to the term Americas. In 1977, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (Consejo Mundial de Pueblos Indígenas) proposed using the indigenous term Abya Yala instead of America when referring to the continent as an objection to colonialism.


There is no one Aboriginal term for the landmass of Australia. Rather, hundreds of linguistically diverse tribes named various places where they lived and interacted.

When the landmass was settled by the Dutch, they began to call it New Holland. English settlers tried to give it the name New South Wales.

The name Australia is derived from the Latin term australis, meaning “southern” in reference to the auster, the south wind. A theory in early pre-modern geography held that a vast continent known as Terra Australis was yet to be discovered in the far south of the globe. The idea was that there must be landmasses in the southern half of the globe to balance out the landmasses in the northern half.

The hypothetical continent of Terra Australis had yet to be confirmed, so botanists and explorers began applying the term to a continent that had been discovered in the southern hemisphere. The English explorer Matthew Flinders most famously used the name Australia in 1804, and it became the continent’s official name in 1817.

The geographic region of Oceania, named for several landmasses in the Pacific Ocean, is sometimes regarded as a continent rather than Australia. It includes Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.


Maori oral histories tell of a crew of explorers led by Hui Te Rangiora who navigated the Antarctic waters in the seventh century, describing the unfamiliar appearance of icebergs as jagged rocks that grew out of the sea and snow as powdered arrowroot. In January 1820, a team of explorers further proved the existence of Terra Australis: a Russian expedition caught sight of an ice shelf, and later that year, American explorers set foot on the continent.

Map of the hypothetical Antarctic region, 1657.
Jan Janssonius (1588–1664), Geheugen van Nederland, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Greek cartographer Marinus of Tyre called this hypothetical landmass Antarctica as early as the second century BCE. The word Antarctica comes from the Greek anti- and arktos. In the Northern Hemisphere, the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (ursa being the Latin word for “bear”) point to the North Star. The northernmost part of the world, the Arctic Circle, was named for the great and little bears.

Antarctica thus means “opposite the bear”—it is opposite (anti) the Arctic. On a related note, the Arctic is home to polar bears, while Antarctica has penguins but no bears.

The continent first received its official name as early as 1840 in a conference of Italian scientists, and the term was adapted for used in English, French, and other languages.


Joyce Chepkemoi, “How Did Australia Get Its Name?” World Atlas, October 3, 2017. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-did-australia-get-its-name.html.

Antonia Čirjak, “What Was the Original Name of Africa?” World Atlas, June 16, 2020. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-was-the-original-name-of-africa.html.

Sabrina Imbler, “The Maori Vision of Antarctica’s Future,” New York Times, July 2, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/science/antarctica-maori-exploration.html.

Rotich Kiptoo Victor, “What Are the Origins of the Names Arctic and Antarctica?” World Atlas, April 24, 2018. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-origins-of-the-names-arctic-and-antarctica.html.

Wikipedia, “History of Antarctica,” “Europa: Consort of Zeus,” “Africa,” “Asia,” “List of Continent Name Etymologies,” “Naming of the Americas.” Accessed September 2022.

Rubber Duckie, You’re the One

What exactly is the function of a rubber duck? The answer involves debtor’s prison, hunting practice, and the Billboard 100.

From birth to age two, children often experience fear surrounding bath time, and the bright, playful stimulus of bath toys like rubber ducks can soothe them and help them overcome their resistance. Rubber ducks encourage water play that helps with coordination, stimulate the senses with bright colors and quacking noises, and just make taking a bath more fun. But have you ever wondered why the rubber duck has such a hold on the bath toy scene?


The earliest rubber duck was created in the late 1800s, but before the duck came the rubber. Charles Goodyear was born in 1800 in Connecticut and worked as a hardware merchant. When he encountered rejection in his attempt to sell hardware to the Roxbury India Rubber Company in New York, it sparked an idea that would change the rubber industry forever. Bad weather had destroyed much of Roxbury’s rubber stocks, leaving them in a financial crunch. Goodyear, who was also in dire financial straits, found himself with a lot of time on his hands in debtor’s prison and began to experiment with gum elastic. He rolled out raw rubber over and over with a pin to get the right consistency, and once out of prison, he continued to perfect his solution by adding minerals to prevent stickiness and make it malleable.

In 1839, Goodyear accidentally dropped a rubber and sulphur solution into a stove and observed that it didn’t melt. He had succeeded. The process of rendering rubber into a malleable, weather-proof, heat-resistant material was called vulcanization, and Goodyear’s innovation has inspired generations of manufacturers. When brothers Frank and Charles Seiberling opened a tire company in 1898, they named it in honor of Charles Goodyear.


Near the end of the 1800s, inventors began to make small rubber objects, as evidenced by patents filed with the U.S. Patent Office. The first ones were chew toys made of hard, solid rubber that didn’t float.

The first patent for a “Rubber Decoy Duck” was filed in 1886 by George H. Nye. It wasn’t a toy but was intended for use in hunting. Previously, decoy ducks were made of wood and were easily breakable. Nye’s new rubber-and-wood combination was more durable.

Rubber duck patent diagram
Diagram from Peter Ganine’s rubber duck patent.

Later came rubber toys that made squeaking noises, and it was only a matter of time before the rubber duck was patented in 1928. Early rubber ducks had propellers or sprayed water like a sprinkler. But the rubber duck that caught on most rapidly was a simple rubber toy with no extra functions; it was purely for play. Following World War II, Russian-American sculptor Peter Ganine’s plain rubber duck design was immensely popular. In the 1960s, when patents on the rubber duck expired, the now-cheaper model became a bathroom staple for households across the country.

In 1970, the song “Rubber Duckie” debuted on Sesame Street when the orange muppet Ernie sang the tune to his favorite bath toy. This song made an icon out of the rubber duck and peaked at no. 16 on Billboard’s Top 100. Because of Ernie’s tubside tune, the rubber duck is now seen as the quintessential bath toy.

You’re the One

Though modern rubber ducks are actually made out of vinyl rather than rubber, the rubber duck has become an icon worldwide. Collectors seek out the most unique rubber ducks, rubber duck derbies pit the bath toys against each other in a race, and classic rubber duckies are found during bath time in many a household. The rubber duck was even inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2013.

Rubber ducks racing in a river
Rubber duck race in Freiburg, Germany.
Image by Andreas Schwarzkopf, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2001, a maintenance worker gave an insider’s view of Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth has her own royal rubber duck, complete with an inflatable crown. This story caused a sensation and led to an 80% increase in sales of rubber ducks in Great Britain.

And just look at the largest rubber duck in the world. At a whopping 50-feet tall, it was created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in New Zealand, debuted at a festival in Sydney, Australia, and has embarked on an international tour.

Big rubber duck in Sydney harbor
Rubber Duck by Florentijn Horman
Image by Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Rubber duckie, you do make bath time lots of fun!


Jones, Lydia. “The History of the Rubber Duck.” B1 Creative, October 4, 2021. https://b1creative.com/2021/10/04/the-history-of-the-rubber-duck/.

Meyer, Lotte Larsen. “Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 1 (2006): 14–23. 

Rossen, Jake. “Wise Quacks: The History of the Rubber Duck.” Mental Floss, January 13, 2019.

The Strong National Museum of Play. “Rubber Duck.” https://www.museumofplay.org/toys/rubber-duck/.

Round Robin

Why is a tournament where each team plays the other in turn called a round robin? The answer involves ribbons, religious refugees, and ringleaders.

What Does Red Robin Mean?

Round robin very generally means something that operates in a rotational manner. It is specifically used for tournaments (in sports or games) where each team or player plays every other, a circulating letter where each subsequent person adds information to the document, or any other situation that involves the participation of each person in a group in turn.

Other Meanings of Red Robin

But before round robin referred to a rotational arrangement, it was a term of disparagement, dating back to the sixteenth century. In 1546, Miles Coverdale wrote,

Certayne fonde [foolish] talkers… applye to this mooste holye sacramente, names of despitte and reproche, as to call it Jake in the boxe, and round roben, and suche other not onely fond but also blasphemouse names.

Round robin also had a variety of other meanings, including supporters of the English Parliament during the country’s civil war, some type of recreational game, and a playful alliterative term for anything round in shape. None of these necessarily had any relation to the robin as a bird.

Origins of Red Robin

Merriam-Webster lists the first known usage of round robin given its current meaning in 1698.  It was first used in the British Royal Navy in reference to a petition of grievances or letter of protest on which the participants signed their names in a circle, like the spokes on a wheel, so that the recipient would not know who signed first. It was regarded as primarily a nautical term, but by the 1730s, even landlubbers—primarily government officials—sent around petitions round-robin style to protect the ringleader from discovery.

Fake Etymology, Real History

Some sources claim that the term comes from the French ruban rond (“round ribbon”), which was likewise a petition where names were written on a circle of ribbon. This is plausible; however, there is no documentary evidence to support this. It’s also been asserted that ringleader stems from the leader of a round robin petition where people signed their names in a ring, but again, there is little concrete evidence for this etymology.

However, history does indicate a French origin story. The round robin petition may have had its beginnings in France in 1621 with a petition signed by 56 Huguenot refugees. The Huguenots were Protestants who suffered severe persecution from the Catholic majority in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These 56 signatories and their families had fled from France to Leiden in Holland. They were now petitioning to settle in the British colony of Virginia. The Walloon Jesse de Forest presented the round-robin petition to the British Ambassador Sir Dudley Carlton, but his request was only granted with such strict parameters that he decided against it. Later, 32 families sailed from Holland to the area known as New Netherland—helping form the beginnings of what would become New York.

The meaning of round robin as applied to a tournament first appeared in the United States in the early 1800s. Though no secrecy or petitions of grievance are involved, the term round robin has expanded to capture the idea of any kind of rotational procedure.


Butterfield, Jeremy. “Round Robins and Folk Etymology.” Jeremy Butterfield Editorial. https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com/2020/06/10/round-robins-and-folk-etymology/.

Grammarist. “Round Robin.” https://grammarist.com/usage/round-robin/.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary. “Round robin.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/round-robin.

The Phrase Finder. “The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Round Robin.” https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/round-robin.html.

I Threw a Wish in a Well

Why do we throw coins into fountains and wells in hopes of a wish being granted? The answer involves the law of contagion, a supermarket for the poor, and the undying hope of humanity.

Many cultures regard water as a gift from the gods. In a desert where water means survival, in an agricultural society where water is necessary to grow crops, and in any place where humans make a home—water is necessary for life. Drinkable water is relatively rare, so wells were built to protect sources of clean water. Various beliefs cropped up regarding the sacred and divine powers of the well, especially in European cultures. Some wells collected coins, food, or clothing as an offering of gratitude to the gods for drinkable water. Some became shrines to deities. Some became places of rest and repose for weary travelers.

Some wells were thought to have healing powers, and the sick person would toss in a piece of their clothing in hopes to be cured of their disease. A concept called the law of contagion explains this superstition—it was believed that the clothing not only carried the disease but represented the person’s disease. It acted as a token of a non-material bond with the person it belonged to and became a vehicle for the healing powers of the well’s resident deity or natural forces. The curative powers of water would transfer from the button or scrap of fabric in the well to the sick person. This same psychological law is in effect (in a negative way) when someone feels disgusted at the idea of wearing an item of clothing that once belonged to someone they dislike, or (in a positive way) when you don’t want to wash your hands after shaking the hand of someone famous.

Some wells became places of prayer and offerings of money. A well in Northumberland, England, was anciently a site of prayer and offerings in the form of coins to the Coventina, the Celtic goddess of wells and springs. An archaeological dig turned up about 16,000 coins from various eras of the Roman empire, most of them of lower value. The exchange value of the coins didn’t seem to weight the odds of the wish or prayer being granted more heavily in the person’s favor. Excavations of other wells have turned up similar results—vast numbers of coins of lower denominations, the result of people tossing in a coin as an offering as they say a prayer to a deity or plead with a supernatural power. Though wells have largely lost their connection to a particular deity, this practice persists in the form of making a wish as one tosses a coin into a well, fountain, or other source of water.

Site of Coventina's Well
Standing stone marking the site of Coventina’s Well.
Image by Mike Quinn CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And we just can’t resist it! Throwing a coin into a wishing well or a fountain is an exercise in hope. Exchanging money for a wish directs our sense of control when our desires are unlikely or uncertain to be fulfilled. Similarly to the law of contagion at work in the diseased person’s clothing, the coin you throw in a well is an extension of yourself and your wish. Anthropologist Peter Wogan explains that when you release the coin, you release control to the water, the life force of the universe, to grant your wish. And when you look into the water, you see the coins of so many others whose wishes—superstitious or ironic or playful or secretly hopeful—led them to the well, just like you. This creates, from a private, unspoken dream, a sense of collective belonging with the hundreds of others.

One of the most famous fountains is the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It was built as the endpoint of an aqueduct called Virgo in honor of the goddess who guided those who were tired and thirsty to water. Originally, legend had it that drinking a glass of water from the fountain would lead to good fortune, good health, and a quick return to Rome. Now, drinking the water isn’t recommendable, but throwing a coin over with your right hand over your left shoulder into the fountain is said to guarantee that you will return to Rome someday. This idea was further popularized by the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain, which also promised that throwing two coins in meant falling in love with a Roman, and tossing in three coins meant that you would marry that person. Cue an insane number of tourists who wished for a Roman love interest.

Trevi fountain
Image by Bodow, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What happens to all those coins? Often, the money goes to charity or toward the upkeep of the fountain or well. For example, tens of thousands of dollars in change are gathered in fountains and wells in Walt Disney World in Florida, and the proceeds are used to support foster children in the state. (You may not think your nickel is worth much, but aggregated with every other park visitor’s change, it adds up—and makes a difference for good!)

In New York City, Parks and Recreation staff clean the city’s 50+ decorative fountains every few weeks, and any change collected goes toward upkeep of the fountains themselves. However, there is usually not much to collect—usually, people take the coins before the Parks staff get to cleaning.

In Rome, so many tourists throw coins into the Trevi Fountain that it must be cleaned every night. The BBC reported that the fountains collect $4,000 in loose change from tourists every day—and authorities are tough on anyone caught skimming off coins from the fountain. The money goes to a charity organization called Caritas for such projects as running a supermarket for the needy and distributing goods to the poor.

Whether you’re wishing for eternal youth, a vacation to Italy, or a call from someone special (maybe?)—the wishing well is a spring of hope for you and a source of charitable donations for others.


Lewis, Danny. “What Happens to Coins Tossed in Fountains?” Smithsonian Magazine, June 6, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heres-what-happens-all-coins-tossed-fountains-180959314/.

Tabila, Lauren, James Green, Jonathan Kwok, Kara Thurn, and Meagan McLaughlin. “Wishing Wells: The Practice of Buying Good Fortune.” University of California–Irvine. http://www.anthropology.uci.edu/~wmmaurer/courses/anthro_money_2006/wishing.html.

Upton, Emily. “Why We Throw Coins into Fountains.” Today I Found Out, March 10, 2014. https://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/03/throw-coins-fountains/.

Wogan, Peter. “Why Do We Throw Coins in Fountains?” Greater Good Magazine, January 26, 2017. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_throw_coins_in_fountains.

Who Was St. Patrick?

Who was St. Patrick? The answer involves pirates, snakes, and revelatory dreams.

St. Patrick mosaic
Saint Patrick Catholic Church
(Junction City, Ohio)
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Patrick is one of the most widely known Christian saints and the patron saint of Ireland. But not much is definitively known about his life. He was not the one who introduced Christianity to Ireland, as is sometimes claimed. Nor does he have much to do with luck or leprechauns. And in fact, he wasn’t even Irish!

Patrick was born in Roman Britain near the end of the fourth century. His family was either of indigenous Celtic descent or from Rome. He signed his name Patricius in Latin, but according to some accounts his birth name was Maewyn Succat. Although Patrick’s family wasn’t particularly religious, his father became a Christian deacon in order to benefit from tax incentives.

When Patrick was sixteen, he was abducted by Irish pirates who attacked and raided his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland and imprisoned him for six years in County Mayo near Killala, where he worked as a shepherd. Alone and separated from his family and his country, Patrick turned inward and found solace in his religion. He began to dream of converting the Irish people to Christianity. He continued to receive revelation through dreams and, after six years as a prisoner, heard God’s voice telling him it was time to leave Ireland. He walked 200 miles to the Irish coast and escaped to Britain.

Later, he had another revelation in a dream, where he saw a figure called Victorious who offered him a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish.” In the dream, Patrick was deeply moved by a company of Irish people imploring him to return, and he felt called to go back to Ireland as a missionary. He began training to become a priest and spent 15 years in religious study before he was ordained. Despite the lengthy time he took in filling his educational gaps, he still felt inadequate for the task that lay ahead of him. But once he had embarked for Ireland, he was filled with confidence and determination for his cause—to minister to Christians already there and to convert the Irish. (He did not introduce Christianity to Ireland, as is commonly believed, but he played the largest role in converting the Irish people to Christianity.) Patrick had great success and baptized and confirmed many people into the Christian faith.

He dealt carefully with local authorities and non-Christians, but he was cast into prison at least once and was in constant peril of martyrdom. Those he converted, too, were at times in danger. In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick denounces the British mistreatment toward Irish Christians and bids those who have died farewell. In his autobiography, Confessio, he humbly poured forth thanks to his Maker for his success in helping the Irish become “people of God.” One scholar stated that “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence of his ‘rustic’ Latin.”

Patrick was able to reach so many people in large part due to his familiarity with Irish language and culture. Instead of attempting to wipe out traditional Irish beliefs, Patrick instead incorporated elements of Irish ritual into Christianity. The Irish celebrated their gods with fire, so Easter celebrations included a bonfire. The Irish used the symbol of the sun in their native worship practices, so Patrick superimposed an image of the sun onto the cross, creating what is known as the Celtic cross. This helped the Irish converts understand the underlying similarities between the light of the sun and the light of Christ and incorporate Christianity more naturally into their lives. According to legend, Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity—and though this story is not based in fact, it illustrates St. Patrick’s creativity, passion, and understanding of the Irish people.

Celtic cross
Modern Celtic cross of a war monument in Limburg-Dietkirchen, Germany.
Image by Volker Thies via Wikimedia Commons.

In this country with a rich tradition of oral storytelling, Patrick’s life and mission was expanded and exaggerated over the centuries. Other legends hold that Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea to their utter destruction, and that is why there are no snakes on the Emerald Isle. One story reports that Patrick prayed for food for a starving group of sailors traveling over land, and a herd of pigs miraculously appeared to sustain them.

In the later years of his life, Patrick retired to Saul, the site of his first church, and died on March 17, 460 AD. He was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church simply because there was no canonization process during the first millennium. Rather, he was almost by default proclaimed a saint due to his widespread popularity. He is widely known as the patron saint of Ireland, and Irish Catholics seek his protection and intercession.

The Feast of Saint Patrick is held on March 17 as a religious celebration. It was traditionally a solemn affair in Ireland, a day of holy obligation and silent prayer rather than rollicking and revelry. Until the late twentieth century, St. Patrick’s Day was actually more widely celebrated in the Irish diaspora than in Ireland itself—most prominently in North America and Australia, where there are large numbers of people with Irish heritage. Starting in the 1700s, Irish immigrants in America began to incorporate celebration of the culture and heritage of the Irish in general on St. Patrick’s Day. Parades and parties, music and dancing now characterized a celebration of Irish pride, and outside Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has focused mainly on more secular aspects of Irish culture. Many people take this as a day to wear as much green as humanly possible, hunt for four-leaf clovers, and drink green beer. Ireland only began to incorporate these types of festivities beginning in the 1970s.

St. Patrick has become nearly synonymous with Ireland. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and honor Irish heritage, let’s also incorporate his humility and deep respect for Irish culture without resorting to stereotypes.


Biography.com Editors. “Saint Patrick.” Biography.com, April 20, 2021. https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/saint-patrick.

Cohen, Jennie. “St. Patrick’s Day Legends and Myths Debunked.” History. Com, March 8, 2022. https://www.history.com/news/st-patricks-day-myths-debunked.

History.com Editors. “Who Was St. Patrick?” History.com, March 10, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/who-was-saint-patrick.

O’Raifeartaigh, Tarlach. “Saint Patrick.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Retrieved March 26, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Patrick.

“St. Patrick.” Catholic Online. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=89.

Who Was Saint Valentine?

We celebrate Valentine’s Day in honor of Saint Valentine every year on February 14th—but who is the legend behind the holiday?

The answer is uncertain, really, but it involves miraculous healing, secret marriage ceremonies, and beekeeping.

The Many Saint Valentines

Various accounts of Saint Valentine seem to overlap and intersect with one another. There are about 500 recorded stories about a saint named Valentine. There were likely two Christian martyrs who made a name for Saint Valentine, and the legendary stories associated with them were merged into one. Historians agree that there may be little actual historical basis for some of these accounts, while others may be exaggerated versions of real events.

And what’s more, there were actually about twelve saints with the name Valentine. Valentinus, the Latin word for worthy, strong, or powerful, was a common name between the second and eighth centuries.

The Roman Priest Who Secretly Performed Marriages

In one account, Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, reasoning that men with no wives or children would be a better asset for the Roman military. Valentine saw the injustice of this decree and began to perform marriages for young Christian couples in secret. These clandestine ceremonies meant that the married men could not be pressed into military service, thereby depleting Claudius’s potential forces. Was Valentine trying to show the emperor that not even the military can conquer love—or is this the story of how Valentine aided in draft-dodging to weaken an empire that was hostile to his people?

Christians were a small and persecuted minority in Europe during this time. Valentine also aided many of his fellow believers in escaping the harsh sentences they faced in Roman prisons, where they were tortured and beaten.

These were serious crimes against the Roman Empire, and when Claudius found out, he ordered that Valentine be put to death. Claudius offered one way out: Valentine could renounce his faith. The priest refused, choosing rather to suffer his own torture and imprisonment, and he was beheaded on February 14. (The year is uncertain, but it was somewhere around 269–280). Valentine’s compassion, integrity, and heroic actions in the face of persecution sealed his fate as a Christian martyr.

Before he was killed, though, he fell in love with a young woman, possibly the jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. He sent her a note signed, “From your Valentine”—meaning that the first valentine greeting was from the saint himself.

Stained glass image of Saint Valentine blessing a young couple
Saint Valentine blessing a young couple.

The Bishop of Terni Who Converted His Captor and Healed the Blind

Another account from the same period places Valentine as the Bishop of Terni. Valentine was placed under arrest in the house of Judge Asterius for the crime of attempting to convert people to Christianity. The judge and the bishop engaged in debate over religion to pass the time. As Valentine continued to pledge his faith to his captor, Asterius decided to put him to the test. He presented Valentine with his daughter, who was blind, and, with a guarded hope and desperation, asked him to heal her. Valentine placed his hands on her eyes and restored her sight. Judge Asterius, in awe, broke all the idols in his house and fasted for three days, and then he and his entire 44-person household were baptized as Christians. He also ordered the release of all Christian prisoners nearby.

Valentine was later imprisoned again, and this time, he was sentenced to death by beheading on February 14. Before he died, he sent a letter to Asterius’s daughter whom he had healed, signed “Your Valentine.” (Or perhaps she was the one who sent him the letter.) Sound familiar?

Both Valentines are said to have been buried at Ponte Milvio along the Via Flaminia, and since the year 496, a feast has been held in honor of Saint Valentine on February 14. However, the Roman Catholic Church removed Saint Valentine from its calendar in 1969 due to the lack of reliable information on his life.


Today, Valentine is still honored as the patron saint of love, engaged couples, and happy marriages . . . as well as epilepsy, beekeeping, fainting, and the plague.  

Saint Valentine healing a man with epiliepsy
Saint Valentine blessing a man with epilepsy. Colored etching.
Wellcome Library, London. CC BY 4.0.

It’s not clear how all these associations came about. But let’s talk about beekeeping for a moment. One of Saint Valentine’s duties in the afterlife is to maintain the sweetness of honey, that bee colonies flourish, and that . Bees have long been associated with goddesses of love, like Aphrodite, Venus, or Gwen. Myths from ancient Greece and Rome portray bees as having romantic effects on humans. Honey has been used as an aphrodisiac and medicinal agent for thousands of years, and its sweet taste represents love and healing. Beekeepers, then, can represent the guardians of love in family and marital relationships.

All this is to say that Valentine watches over the protectors of love. But also the plague.

So Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Our friend Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, was the first to associate the feast day of Saint Valentine with romantic love.

In his poem “Parlement of Foules,” Chaucer wrote,

For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery foul comyth there to chese his make.

Those lovebirds were looking for a match on Valentine’s Day. Chaucer was perhaps referring to the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa on May 3, which is when birds are more likely to mate. But people took the 14th of February and ran with it.

Medieval folks had gone crazy for stories of courtly love and especially stories of forbidden or secret relationships. Now, young lovers called upon Saint Valentine for a blessing on their relationship, finding romance and excitement from the tales of secret marriages performed under his hand. In France, February 14th became a day of feasting, singing, and dancing in honor of romantic love. The French and the English penned love letters to their “valentines,” and Shakespeare’s Ophelia pines,

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

The legendary name of Valentine is now shorthand for romantic love and all the excitement and disappointment, butterflies and heartbreak that come with it. But perhaps we can remember a different type of Valentine—the type who is willing to sacrifice his own life out of a deep commitment to his faith and love for others, the type who courageously performs acts of compassion during times of oppression.


Barry, Anna Maria. “A History of Valentine’s Day Celebrations—From Fertility Festivals to the First Cards.” History Extra, February 10, 2021. https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/when-was-valentines-day-first-celebrated-cards-history-saint-valentine/.

Gershon, Livia. “Who Was the Real Saint Valentine? The Many Myths Behind the Inspiration for Valentine’s Day.” History.com. https://www.history.com/news/real-st-valentine-medieval.

Harris, Karen. “Saint Valentine: The Patron Saint Of Bees, Fainting, And The Actual Plague.” History Extra. https://historydaily.org/saint-valentine-patron-saint-bees-fainting-actual-plague.

History.com Editors. “History of Valentine’s Day.” History.com, January 24, 2022. https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2.

“Saint Valentine—Patron Saint of Beekeepers and Lovers.” Glory Bee, February 14, 2017. https://glorybee.com/blog/saint-valentine-patron-saint-of-beekeepers-and-lovers/.

“St. Valentine.” Catholic Online. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Saint Valentine.” Retrieved February 11, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Valentine.

The Story of “Once Upon a Time”

Why do we say “once upon a time” when beginning a story? The answer involves great time, great distance, and great imagination.

“Once upon a time” is a formulaic beginning that primes the listener for a story and frames the narrative to come. It is vague and imprecise on purpose—it’s a signal that the story is fictional and invites readers or listeners to open their imagination. But if you really think about it, this common phrase used to begin a story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “Once” means something happened, but how can that something be “upon” a time?” Well, until fairly recently, “upon” was often attached to any time-related phrase where we might use “at” or “on” today.

History of “Once Upon a Time”

It is believed that many different variants of this archaic-sounding phrase have been a part of English storytelling since before Chaucer’s day. By this time, lines like “once on a time” or “once upon a day” had already become conventional, as evidenced by their inclusion in enduring literary works.

The first recorded use of such a phrase, in this case “Onys uppon a day,” was in 1380 in the story Sir Ferumbras. This was a Middle English romantic poem that was part of a collection of literature on the history of Charlemagne’s France.

Geoffrey Chaucer also used the similar phrase “once on its use in The Canterbury Tales, published in 1385.

Yet another variation is found in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the book of Job: “Now upon a time . . . the servants of God came and stood before the Lord.”

Finally, the fully formed phrase “once upon a time” has been around in oral and written form since about 1600. It’s also likely that storytelling conventions in French, German, and Scandinavian fairy tales were born out in English translations. They often have similar first lines in their respective language, such as “there was once” or “once” or “there was a time.”

Time and Space: The Power of Story

“Once upon a time” conveys distance and time far removed from here and now. The power of story is that it allows us to imagine and process things outside the constraints of our everyday lives. Maria Konnikova explains that stories allow us to reflect on the world in a nonthreatening way through psychological distancing. The distancing is actually what helps us connect to the story, discern patterns, and weave together pieces of ourselves that would otherwise remain without tangible expression. At a distance, we have the freedom to engage in fantasy and reflection to comprehend more about reality than we could when we are in the thick of real life. We can learn to empathize, play, imagine, and abstract. We then translate the truth of a story into the language of our reality to overcome real problems.

Think about Star Wars—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is a great place to explore the idea of having both light and dark within oneself, the larger battle of good vs. evil, and the mystery of a higher power or force greater than humanity.

Back When Tigers Smoked: Beginning a Story in Other Languages

Other languages, too, have phrases that signal the beginning of a story and create space in terms of time and distance that can be filled in through imagination. Let’s take a look at how stories begin around the world.

Many opening phrases simply mean “a long time ago” or “it’s an old story.” Romance and Germanic languages typically use some variation of “there was once” or “once it happened”—creating a distance in time.

In some languages, such as Russian, the phrase used to begin a story translates to “in some kingdom” or “in some land.” Czech uses an interesting phrase that means “Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers.” Some other Eastern European languages have similar phrases that convey great distance, like Lithuanian: “Beyond nine seas, beyond nine lagoons.”

Some simply signal that we are indeed about to hear a story. In Hausa, a West African language, a narrative begins, “A story, a story. Let it go, let it come.” 

Some openers draw on the value of oral traditions, like the Iraqw opening line spoken in Tanzania and Kenya: “I remember something that our father told me and that is this.” Likewise, in Chile, one classic formula is “Listen to tell it, and tell it to teach it.”

And some openings are designed to draw listeners in by engaging a fantastical, mythical, far-off world. A traditional Turkish opening phrase translates to “Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, [when] fleas were barbers, [when] camels were town criers, [and when] I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle, there was/lived, in an exotic land, far, far away, a/an . . .”

In Korean, one way to introduce a story is to say, “Back when tigers used to smoke [tobacco] . . .” This one is worth digging into. The tiger is a defining symbol of Korea and features in the Korean origin myth as an animal that had the potential to become human. A tigress and a she-bear who lived together in a cave both wanted to become human. The two animals were promised by a heavenly prince that if they stayed in their cave for 100 days and ate only mugwort and garlic, they would emerge as humans. The tiger lost patience and ran out into the forest, while the bear persisted and became a woman who gave birth to the king Tangun.

As a prominent figure in Korean folklore, the tiger is a symbol of strength, power, and protection but is also often the one who is outwitted or who becomes the butt of a joke. The dual symbol of the tiger is both revered and lovingly ridiculed.

Joseon period Korean folk painting depicting a tiger smoking a pipe.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

(As an aside, smoking has been widely practiced in Korea since the introduction of tobacco in the early 1600s. Everyone, old and young, male and female, rich and poor, smoked tobacco, until the late 1800s when it fell out of fashion for women. Growing tobacco boosted the economy, tobacco was seen as medicinal, and smoking became a social activity. Smoking has decreased in South Korea in recent decades but is still more prevalent than in other parts of the world.)

But why, in the phrase used to begin a story, are tigers the ones smoking? No one knows exactly why. It may simply be an indication of a highly fantastical story, given that tigers don’t and can’t smoke (at least not of their own volition). It’s a signal that a story is about to take place, drawing on the rich representation of the tiger in stories that people are already familiar with.

How does your story begin?


Colberg, Jessica. “Tangun: A Korean Creation Myth.” Retrieved January 22, 2022, from http://www.laits.utexas.edu/doherty/plan2/colbergcreation.html.

Kester, Marie. “The Powerful History Behind Once Upon a Time.” History of Yesterday, February 1, 2021. https://historyofyesterday.com/the-history-behind-once-upon-a-time-1d2eba810dcc.

Konnikova, Maria. “The Power of Once Upon a Time: The Story to Tame Wild Things.” Scientific American, May 8, 2012. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/literally-psyched/the-power-of-once-upon-a-time-a-story-to-tame-the-wild-things/.

Madrid, Anthony. “Once Upon a Time and Other Formulaic Folktale Flourishes.” The Paris Review, May 23, 2018. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/05/23/once-upon-a-time-and-other-formulaic-folktale-flourishes/.

“Once Upon a Time.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 11, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Once_upon_a_time.

Quinion, Michael. “Once Upon a Time.” World Wide Words, December 29, 2007. https://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-onc1.htm. TOTA. “Origins of Korean Culture.” Retrieved January 22, 2022, from https://www.tota.world/article/152/

Brownie Points

What are brownie points? The answer involves military slang, wartime food rationing, and the Girl Scouts.

“You might earn some brownie points if you shovel snow for your next-door neighbor!”

“Turning in your report early will get you some brownie points for sure.”

No, this doesn’t mean that someone will bake you a gooey chocolate confection if you rack up enough points. Nor does it mean that a Scottish household fairy will magically milk your cows and sweep your barn during the night.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a brownie point as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.” This definition emphasizes the negative connotation of pandering to someone to win their favor, but “brownie points” can also simply mean imaginary credit for doing a good deed or praise for a performing a service for someone.

Brown Nosing

The OED indicates that the term “brownie point” may be most closely tied to the term “brown nose,” which similarly means to ingratiate oneself with someone by being excessively attentive or eager to help. “Brown nosing” originated as military slang and is documented as early as 1938. The general notion was similar to many other obscenities—the brown noser was kissing someone’s backside. You can guess where the brown came from.

Brownie Badges

J.E. Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang states that “brownie points” originated from a rewards system used by the Brownies tier of the Girl Guides (UK)/Girl Scouts (USA) program. While “brown nose” is a more likely precursor to “brownie points,” the term surely owes some of its popularity to the founder of international scouting.

Stained glass window of Robert Baden-Powell
A stained glass window in Sussex dedicated to Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the international scouting movement.
Image by Cnbrb, CCO 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1914, Lord Robert Baden-Powell organized the youngest age group of girls in the Girl Guides program and called them the Rosebuds. The group was run first by his sister, Agnes, and later by his wife, Olave. After hearing that the 8-to-11-year-olds in the Rosebuds group disliked the name, Lord Baden-Powell renamed them Brownies after an 1870 story called “The Brownies” by Juliana Horatia Ewing.

Brownies were popular in children’s literature at the time the Brownie Girl Guides were founded. In “The Brownies,” two children named Tommy and Betty learn that it’s better to be helpful and hardworking like brownies rather than lazy like boggarts. Ewing’s tale draws upon brownies in English and Scottish folklore, where they are described as a kind of fairy that dwelt in homes and awoke at night to clean, do chores, and sometimes pull light-hearted pranks on lazy servants. They were rewarded with a bit of cream and bread. Boggarts, on the other hand, were malevolent household spirits that stir up mischief, make things disappear, and cause milk to sour. A brownie could turn into a boggart if it the household occupants offended it.

Brownies reading a book. Illustration from The Palmer Cox Brownie Primer, a children’s reader from 1906.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

True to their namesake, Girl Guides/Scouts in the Brownies section (now encompassing ages 7–11) are encouraged to be kind and helpful in their communities. Brownies receive badges as a reward for achieving various interest-related and scouting-related tasks or for doing good deeds. The term “Brownie points” with a capital B has been associated with Girl Scout achievement badges. However, there has never necessarily been a “point system” to earn badges in Brownies or to advance up the ranks in the Girl Scout organization, and the term is not used within the organization.

The Brownie Exchange

As another theory, During World War II, citizens were given ration points in various colors that could be exchanged for food, based on availability. Red and brown points were used to buy meat and fats, while blue points purchased canned and bottled foods. It’s easy to see how “brown points” could have morphed into “brownie points.”

Other theories as to the origin of “brownie points” abound:

  • In the 1930s, brown vouchers called “brownies” were awarded to delivery boys who carried the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Country Gentleman, which they could exchange for items from a catalog.
  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave “brownie points” as a system of merits and demerits. This was copied by other railways, but it was mainly used as a term for negative actions by employees.
  • A camera club started in 1900 taught children how to use the Brownie box camera—but with no system of points in sight, this seems like an unlikely origin.

With the most likely origin stemming from a reference to excrement, it’s no wonder that we’ve come up with many other explanations for “brownie points”—but a variation on “brown-nosing” does seem to make the most sense.

Initial Usage

Given all of this background, it’s surprising that the term “brownie points” didn’t come into existence earlier in the twentieth century.

A 1944 book of American Speech recorded “brownie points” as a schoolyard taunt for goody-two shoes students who answered all the teacher’s questions.

The first specific documented use was in 1951 in the Los Angeles Times. In an article called “Brownie Points—The New Measure of a Husband,” Miles Marvin wrote of brownie points as a means of earning favor with his wife. He goes to great lengths to explain the unfamiliar new term:

I first heard about them [brownie points] when the chap standing next to me in the elevator pulled a letter from his pocket, looked at it in dismay and muttered “More lost brownie points.”

Figuring him for an eccentric, I forgot about them until that evening when one of the boys looked soulfully into the foam brimming his glass and said solemnly:

“I should have been home two hours ago . . . I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.”

Brownie points! What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?

“You don’t know about brownie points? It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman – favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.”

Miles didn’t exactly know where it came from, either, but his article captured an unfortunate transactional dynamic between wives and husbands. A respectable husband in Miles’s day was supposed to remember birthdays and anniversaries, remember to complete tasks his wife had asked him to do, and get home on time—and it seems like his friend could never get ahead.

Since then, brownie points have typically been used in a more positive light, as an imaginary reward for good deeds rather than a dauntingly high bar to achieve or a pejorative term. Probably because they remind us of chocolate.


Miles, Marvin. “Brownie Points—The New Measure of a Husband.” Los Angeles Times. March 15, 1951, p. 41.

O’Conner, Patricia, and Kellerman, Stewart. “Brownie Points and Brown-Nosing.” Grammarphobia, March 12, 2018. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2018/03/brownie-points.html.

Oxford English Dictionary. “brownie point.” oed.com.

Rossen, Jake. “Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?” Mental Floss, August 19, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/587569/brownie-points-term-origin.

Schumm, Laura. “Food Rationing in Wartime America.” History.com, August 31, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/food-rationing-in-wartime-america.

Simpson, Jacqueline, and Roud, Stephen. “brownie.” A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press, 2000.

The Phrase Finder. “Brownie points.” https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/brownie-points.html.

Upton, Emily. “The Origin of the Term ‘Brownie Points.’” Today I Found Out, May 6, 2014. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/origin-term-brownie-points/.

Spreading More Christmas Cheer: Christmas Carols Part 2

Where do MORE of our favorite Christmas songs come from? The answer involves Thanksgiving sleigh rides, a department store giveaway, and a pilgrimage to Israel.

(This is part 2. Read part 1 here.)

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Many Christmas songs are written by those who imagine what Bethlehem might have been like on the night Christ was born. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was inspired by a Christmas Eve service actually held in Bethlehem.

Phillips Brooks was highly esteemed in matters of both faith and intellect, as an Episcopalian preacher who had earned a doctorate of divinity from Oxford, taught at Yale, and publicly advocated against slavery during the Civil War. He was known to be quite reserved and found an outlet to express his feelings through writing verse. Hymns were a major part of his spiritual upbringing, as his parents had each child in the family learn a new hymn each Sunday and recite it for the family. Wrote one biographer, “These hymns Phillips carried in his mind as so much mental and spiritual furniture, or as germs of thought; they often reappeared in his sermons, as he became aware of some deeper meaning in the old familiar lines.” He also said that “the language of sacred hymns learned in childhood and forever ringing in his ears” was a means through which “he had felt the touch of Christ.”

Statue honoring Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church in Boston.
Sculptor Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1865, Brooks embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and saw the fields where the shepherds saw the star. He participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity and was profoundly moved by the experience.

In 1868, with the memory of Christmas in Bethlehem still “singing in [his soul],” Brooks channeled his feelings about the experience into a song for the Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, where he was the rector. He asked organist Lewis Redner to set the words to music. Redner struggled to come up with just the right tune. On the night before the Christmas service at their church, Redner wrote, “I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony.” The children’s choir performed the song, and Brooks and Redner thought that would be the end of it.

But the owner of a bookstore a few streets down began to print the carol on leaflets for sale. In 1874, a Reverend Huntington of All Saints’ Church in Massachusetts asked for permission to reprint the song in a Sunday school hymn book and named the tune “St. Louis.” The song gradually gained recognition and made its way into official hymn books of many different denominations.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the words were set to the tune “Forest Green” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and published in the 1906 English Hymnal. To this day, those in England and Ireland sing this version, while North Americans prefer Redner’s melody.

Jingle Bells

The town of Medford, Massachusetts, had an annual sleigh race around Thanksgiving. In 1850, James Lord Pierpont wrote a song to commemorate the Thanksgiving tradition and published it in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Reportedly, he penned the song in a tavern that was home to the one piano in town and may have lifted some lines from a minstrel song by Stephen Foster.

It actually has two additional verses that you may not know, telling the story of a young couple on a sleigh ride who tip their sleigh into a snowdrift (and they’re still “laughing all the way!”).

The song was not widely popular at first and remained a local phenomenon, but the phonograph record changed that. The song was first recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1898. Drawing upon the cold weather imagery, musicians and choirs began to incorporate it into their rotations of Christmas songs, and it eventually became closely tied to the Christmas season rather than Thanksgiving. Finally, the radio propelled “Jingle Bells” to be consistently one of the most popular Christmas songs in the country.

 “Jingle Bells” was also the first song broadcast from space. On December 6, 1965, an astronaut aboard Gemini 6 performed “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica as a prank on Mission Control.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

In 1939, the Great Depression was beginning to fade, but World War II was lurking on the horizon. The Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store was looking to cut costs for its annual holiday giveaway, which featured children’s coloring books, while still spreading Christmas cheer in an uncertain environment. The marketing department was tasked to come up with something, and employee Robert L. May wrote an original Christmas storybook with his four-year-old daughter in mind.

According to History.com, “As he peered out at the thick fog that had drifted off Lake Michigan, May came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer ostracized because of his luminescent nose, who used his physical abnormality to guide Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas.”

The cover of Robert May’s original story.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a professional songwriter and later wrote hits like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nearly ten years after May wrote his storybook, Marks adapted the story into a Christmas song. Gene Autry, better known as the “Singing Cowboy,” picked up the song in 1949, and his recording sold over 2 million units in a year. This made it the second most successful Christmas record ever, just after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

Since May had written the story while on the job at Montgomery Ward, the department store owned the copyright to all things Rudolph. When May’s wife died of a terminal illness in 1947, he was left as a single parent with crippling medical debt. The president of Montgomery Ward signed over 100% of the “Rudolph” copyright to May, and with the royalties, he was able to pay off his debt and live comfortably for the rest of his life.

Once in Royal David’s City

Cecil Francis Humphreys Alexander was a prolific hymnwriter from a young age. By the time she was 22, several of her texts had been published in the hymnbook of the Church of Ireland. She was born in Dublin in 1818, and her influence spread all over Ireland as she accompanied her husband, who was the bishop of the Church of Ireland and later an archbishop, on his travels. Alexander took every opportunity to engage in the ministry of the church and work with children. She also gave much of her life to charity work and social causes.

Her poem “Once in Royal David’s City” first appeared in the collection Hymns for Little Children in 1848. The goal of this book was to explain the Apostles’ Creed in cheerful, simple terms for the benefit of children. “Once in Royal David’s City” elaborates on the line of the Apostles’ Creed “born of the Virgin Mary.” Two other well-known hymns were also published in this book: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (to explain “creator of heaven and earth”) and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (to illuminate “was crucified, died, and was buried”). The proceeds from the hymnal were used to build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

Stained glass window in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry, in honor of Cecil F. Alexander.
Image Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Henry John Gauntlett, an organist at several churches in London, composed the music for the most well-known version of the song in 1849. The song caught on quickly and became part of the Christmas liturgical sections of hymnbooks in most Christian denominations.

Later verses of the song have sparked controversy over their portrayal of the baby Jesus as “weak” and “helpless.” Critics have suggested that Alexander was writing in a Victorian-era context in which a patronizing tone was taken toward children, and children were to be seen and not heard. Her lyrics may well have reflected Victorian child-rearing principles rather than providing a scripturally based account of the Nativity scene—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Christmas song that does get everything right, and the Son of God in the flesh surely did experience what it was like to have human feelings and experiences.

On Christmas Eve, English speakers around the world tune in to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from King’s College in Cambridge. This tradition began in 1918, was first broadcast in 1928, and is now heard by millions around the world. In 1919, the second year of the festival, the organist composed an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as a processional hymn. The first verse is an a cappella solo by a boy chorister, with the organ and choir joining in for the rest of the song. It is a high honor to be chosen for the solo—to be the voice that rings in the spirit of Christmas in the hearts of people all around the world.


Benson, Louis F. “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/Notes_On_Carols/o_little_town_of_bethlehem.htm.

Coghlan, Alexandra. “Christmas Carols: The History Behind 9 Festive Favorites.” History Extra, December 22, 2021. https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/christmas-carols-history-festive-songs-origins-silent-night/.

Hall, Robert. “THE ONE HORSE OPEN SLEIGH: The Story of ‘Jingle Bells.’” New England Song Series No. 3. American Music Preservation. http://www.americanmusicpreservation.com/jinglebellssong.htm.

Hammel, Jennifer Miller. “The Lesser-Known History of ‘Jingle Bells.’” KUSC, December 17, 2020, https://www.kusc.org/culture/arts-alive-blog/the-history-of-jingle-bells/.

Hawn and Hanna. “History of Hymns: ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ Serves as Processional Hymn.” United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries, May 30, 2013. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-once-in-royal-davids-city-serves-as-processional-hymn.

History.com editors. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the #1 song on the U.S. pop charts.” History, January 6, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-is-the-1-song-on-the-u-s-pop-charts.

Puchko, Kristy. “The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols.” Mental Floss, December 24, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60596/origins-10-popular-christmas-carols.

Riggle, Emma. “The Stories of Twelve Famous Carols.” All Classical Portland, December 20, 2019. https://www.allclassical.org/the-stories-of-twelve-famous-carols/.

Roland, Elisa. “Here’s the Surprising History Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols.”Reader’s Digest, October 21, 2021. https://www.rd.com/list/history-behind-christmas-carols/.

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. “Once in Royal David’s City.” http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/once_in_royal_davids_city.htm.

The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer: Christmas Carols Part 1

Where did some of our favorite Christmas songs come from? Each one has a unique story, some of which involve a broken organ, a statue of Johannes Gutenberg, and a chain email hoax.

(This is part 1. Read part 2 here.)

Silent Night

“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was written by the Catholic priest Joseph Mohr while he was stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. He was inspired to write the lyrics in 1816 when he went on a walk and looked out at a peaceful, snow-laden town, still and silent on a winter night. Two years later, Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber, an organist and schoolmaster, to compose music to accompany the words for the Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. The song was performed by a guitar and a choir.

St. Nicholas Church, now called the Silent Night Chapel, in Obendorf, Austria.
Image by Gakuro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some accounts of the story say that the organ in the church was broken, and it could not be fixed until the spring when the snow had melted. Mohr was still determined to provide sacred music for Christmas Eve, and Gruber pulled through by composing a simple, peaceful melody on the guitar. Some versions blame a flood for the organ’s downfall, and others have a mouse chewing a hole in the leather of the organ bellows. But the truth is that guitar accompaniment was actually fairly common in Germany and Austria at this time, regardless of whether and why the organ was out of commission.

The song began to spread when an organ builder and repairman working at the church (maybe he was fixing the organ?) took a copy of the song to his home village. Two families of traveling folk singers picked it up and began to perform the song around northern Europe. The Strasser family performed “Stille Nacht” for the King of Prussia in 1834. The Rainer family of singers debuted the carol in America for the first time in 1839 outside Trinity Church in New York City. 

The Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who was assigned to Trinity Church, had taken up the hobby of translating hymns into English. He translated “Stille Nacht” into “Silent Night,” and his words are now sung by millions of people in English-speaking nations. The song has been translated into over 300 languages, and it is one of the most popular Christmas songs worldwide.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Christian twelve days of Christmas take place between Christmas on December 25, celebrating the birth of Jesus, and Epiphany on January 6, commemorating the adoration of the Magi. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” song was likely French in origin. The earliest version of an English poem about the twelve days of Christmas is found in Mirth With-out Mischief, a children’s book from 1780. It was written in the style of a “memory and forfeits” game, in which players tested how well they remembered the lyrics as each new verse was added and had to forfeit something to their opponents if they made a mistake.

In the song, the twelve days of Christmas promise the following gifts:

Day 1: a partridge in a pear tree
Day 2: two turtle doves
Day 3: three French hens
Day 4: four calling birds
Day 5: five gold rings
Day 6: six geese a-laying
Day 7: seven swans a-swimming
Day 8: eight maids a-milking
Day 9: nine ladies dancing
Day 10: ten lords a-leaping
Day 11: eleven pipers piping
Day 12: twelve drummers drumming

There have been many variations to the lyrics over the years. Some carolers sang of “bears a-baiting,” “hares a-running, or “ships a-sailing,” and no one can ever seem to remember the order of the last four gifts. Sometimes “my mother gave” me the gifts, and other times “my true love sent” them to me.

Additionally, some variations came from mishearing the lyrics. The fourth day of Christmas came with “four colly birds” originally, using a regional English expression meaning “coal-black.” Those not familiar with the regional dialect substituted other words that made more sense to them—canary, colored, and curley birds are found in different versions of the song. Frederic Austin, the English composer who set the words to music in 1909, used “calling birds” in his version, which became the most popular variation.

Finally, some historians hypothesize that the five golden rings originally referred to the markings of a gold-necked pheasant. This would also make the golden rings gift consistent with the gifts for the rest of days 1–7, which are all birds.

Chrysolophus pictus -Melbourne Zoo, Australia-8a.jpg
A gold-necked pheasant.
Image by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And speaking of gifts, each year, PNC financial services calculates the Christmas Price Index (CPI) by totaling the price of one set of all the gifts given in the song. In 2021, the CPI is $41,205.58. (If you include all the repetitions, the total cost of the gifts from the singer’s true love is $179,454.19.) The CPI is up a whopping 5.7% from the previous year and 5.9% from the year before that due to the impact of the COVID pandemic on the cost of purchasing each item—who knew that the price of birds increased so much year-over-year? The nine ladies dancing, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming were out of the running for the 2020 CPI, since the pandemic led to cancellation of most live performances, so it’s good to see they’re back this year!

In the 1990s, an email chain began to circulate that claimed “The Twelve Days of Christmas” encoded messages about important articles of Christian faith (i.e., the partridge in a pear tree was Jesus, the two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments, and so on). The story went that, beginning in the 1500s, Catholics in England were prohibited from practicing their religion in public or private when the English crown established itself as the supreme head of the church in England. Catholics in hiding thus sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to teach children a catechism of their faith during a time of persecution.

This myth has been thoroughly debunked, given that there is no evidence to support it, and that it first surfaced seemingly out of nowhere in the 1990s. Further, nearly all the religious tenets supposedly “hidden” in the song were basic beliefs shared by Anglicans and Catholics alike, as well as many other Christian denominations at the time. There is no reason they would need to be secretly encoded in a Christmas song. It’s also not clear how believers would have remembered what each gift stood for, since there is not a clear relationship between the gift and the idea that it supposedly represented (how do eight maids a-milking help people remember the eight beatitudes?).

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a largely secular song that celebrates the Christmas season with one’s “true love” and with gifts, dancing, and music—which is not a bad thing, considering that the made-up stories about it hark back to a time when one group of Christians decided to torture and kill another group of Christians.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The hymn we now know as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 as a tribute to Johannes Gutenberg. It was performed as the second movement of Festgesang or Gutenberg Cantata during the unveiling of a statue of Gutenberg at the Leipzig Gutenberg Festival, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press.

A men’s chorus sang:

“Gutenberg, du wackrer Mann, du stehst glorreich auf dem Plan!” 

“Gutenberg, you valiant man, you stand glorious on the square!”

Mendelssohn wanted to publish the music with English lyrics but couldn’t find quite the right text. He wrote, “If the right [words] are hit at, I am sure that the piece will be liked very much by singers and hearers, but it will never do to sacred words.”

In the 1850s, a choirboy named William Cummings who had sung in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah hit on just the right text: “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” from Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) by one of the founding ministers of Methodism, Charles Wesley. Wesley was a prolific hymnwriter and wrote over 6,500 of them.

The original tune for “Hymn for Christmas-Day” was slower and more solemn. Wesley intended it to be sung to the same tune as “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today.” The first line as written by Wesley was a little different, too:

“Hark! How all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.”

“Welkin” was an obscure word (even then) meaning the sky or heaven. In 1758, George Whitefield, a fellow founder of Methodism, changed Wesley’s text to the more familiar first line:

Hark! The Herald Angels sing / Glory to the new-born King!

Deck the Hall

“Deck the Hall” comes from a sixteenth-century Welsh New Year’s Eve song with the same tune but completely different lyrics. A literal translation of “Nos Galan,” as it was called in Welsh, goes something like this:

The best pleasure on New Year’s Eve,
—Fa, la, &c.
Is house and fire and a pleasant family,
—Fa, la, &c.
A pure heart and brown ale,
—Fa, la, &c.
A gentle song and the voice of the harp,
—Fa, la, &c.

The “fa la la la la” is found in the original Welsh, and it was likely passed down from much earlier medieval ballads.

The song gained greater popularity when it was published in John Thomas’s Welsh Melodies in 1862, with the traditional text provided by the Welsh poet Talhaiarn side by side with English lyrics by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant. Oliphant’s lyrics were not a translation of the lyrics but a new poem entirely. His version may not have been the “ancient Christmas carol” it promises to be, since it came from a New Year’s Eve song, but it did draw on the ancient Christmas and Yuletide traditions of the British Isles:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel, –> Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Christmas carol.

See the flowing bowl before us, –> See the blazing yule before us,
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Follow me in merry measure,
While I sing of beauty’s treasure. –> While I tell of Christmas treasure.

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Laughing, quaffing all together, –> Sing we joyous all together.
Heedless of the wind and weather.

These verses have a decidedly Scottish flavor—“lads and lasses” and copious references to alcohol cement its origins in the British Isles. Notice that earlier version of the song was very merry indeed, and certain lines were later changed to remove references to drinking.  

The druids of the pre-Roman British Isles saw holly as a sacred tree that retained the light of the sun the whole year round, since it was an evergreen that remained green through the winter. They decorated their homes with the leaves and berries of the holly tree as a symbol of life—a practice that has perpetuated throughout time. The very word “holly” may even be a variation of the word “holy.” Later on, Christians in Europe saw the red holly berries as representing the blood of Christ and the leaves representing His crown of thorns. Writings from 1598 state that “every man’s house, the parish churches, the corners of streets, and marketplaces in London were decorated with English holly (Ilex aquifolium) during the Christmas season.” Peoples all over the world, including Romans, Greeks, Native Americans, and Chinese have used holly for centuries as an aspect of winter and new year celebrations.

And the “blazing yule” before us is the log burnt in the home during the twelve days of Christmas. This tradition comes from a Scandinavian winter solstice ritual in which the log is an “emblem of divine light,” a symbol of the return of the sun following the darkest day of the year. The Yule log was lit from the remains of last year’s log, which was carefully preserved for this purpose. It provided light and warmth as family gathered around the fire and told, yes, ghost stories, and predicted their future for the coming year. The Yuletide fire cleansed the remnants of the old year and was hoped to bring forth a fruitful spring.

Some other things you may have wondered:

To “troll” means to sing the song in a round.

“Quaffing” means drinking (alcohol).

From Austrian church services to Welsh New Year’s Eve festivities, the origins of our favorite Christmas carols are fascinating. What song would you like to know the history behind?


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Pai, Tanya. “The 12 Days of Christmas: The Story Behind the Holiday’s Most Annoying Carol.” Vox, December 1, 2020 . https://www.vox.com/21796404/12-days-of-christmas-explained.

Perry, Leonard. “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” The Green Mountain Gardener, University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science. https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/holly.htm.

PNC. The PNC Christmas Price Index. 2021. https://www.pncchristmaspriceindex.com/#about.

Puchko, Kristy. “The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols.” Mental Floss, December 24, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60596/origins-10-popular-christmas-carols.

Riggle, Emma. “The Stories of Twelve Famous Carols.” All Classical Portland, December 20, 2019. https://www.allclassical.org/the-stories-of-twelve-famous-carols/.

Roland, Elisa. “Here’s the Surprising History Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols.” Reader’s Digest, October 21, 2021. https://www.rd.com/list/history-behind-christmas-carols/.

Wikipedia. “The Twelve Days of Christmas (Song).” Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song).

WRTI Your Classical and Jazz Source. “The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol ‘Silent Night.’” December 19, 2020. https://www.wrti.org/arts-desk/2020-12-19/the-story-behind-the-beloved-christmas-carol-silent-night.