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Christmas comes but once a year

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesThis post from five years ago from our Language Tips series looked at some popular Christmas phrases.

Since it is Christmas week I thought I’d depart from the usual theme of these posts and look at some Christmas phrases.

To start with the title of the post, the phrase is from a poem by the 16th century English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser, who came from Essex, the county of my birth. The full quotation reads:

At Christmas play and make good cheer, For Christmas comes but once a year.

The expression has passed into common usage, being the title of a 1936 animated film as well as a common way of pointing to the contrast between Christmas and other normal times. But here means ‘only’, a sense that Macmillan Dictionary labels as formal.

It’s almost impossible to hear the phrase White Christmas without immediately hearing the smooth tones of my father’s favourite crooner, Bing Crosby, singing Irving Berlin’s hit song. A white Christmas, though almost invariably depicted in festive illustrations, is a rare event in most of the British Isles since it is an occasion when snow falls or lies on the ground on Christmas Day. I can only remember a handful of these in my lifetime, most recently in 2010. Since the British love a flutter, it is possible to bet on whether there will be a white Christmas in any particular year; naturally the bookies generally win.

Versions of the proverb The proof of the pudding is in the eating date back to the 14th century, although its current form can be traced back to 1701. The traditional Christmas pudding, rich with dried fruit, fat and brandy, may be going out of favour, seen as too heavy to end a meal that has already erred on the side of calorific excess, but in many households it’s still an essential climax to the festive dinner. My mother was a great one for Christmas traditions and would always make her puddings on or near the traditionally sanctioned day for the task; this is Stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. The day gets its name from the collect for the day in the Anglican church, which starts with the words ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’. Each of us would get a turn at stirring the mixture with a long wooden spoon and making a wish before it was spooned into pudding basins to be boiled for many hours in large saucepans, filling the kitchen with steam and indicating that Christmas really was coming.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

1 Comment

  • Liz you have excelled yourself. Thank you. One of my few real memories of Nana is stirring the Christmas pudding with said spoon. Xxx

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