What do you call Santa’s elves? Subordinate clauses.


By Joe Diorio

Time to dip into the old cliché bag and roll out some holiday word nuggets.

Rudolph, the red-nosed caribou: Yep, the correct name for Santa’s reindeer is caribou. The word “reindeer” has roots in the 15th century from an old Norse word that grew out of the phrase “hreinn reindeer,” which was used to identify a male caribou. You can thank the advertising team at Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago for creating the story of Rudolph. The tale of the red-nosed caribou was used by the retailer in its 1949 holiday advertising campaign and was later converted into the well-known song. Bonus points for anyone who knows the name of the singer who first recorded the song. (And, no, it wasn’t Gene Autry.)

Baubles hanging from the tree: A bauble is defined as a trinket. Its origin goes all the way back to the 14th century and referred to a piece of jewelry, as in “he affixed the bauble, with a kiss, upon her finger.” It was Sir Walter Scott who referred to the scepter brandished by a court jester as a bauble. Interestingly, an ornament for a tree is the fourth and final definition offered up by Merriam Webster.

We kiss under the mistletoe, why: Mistletoe is considered a hemiparasitic plant that grows on pine, oak, birch and apple trees. It’s called a hemiparasatic plant because it carries out photosynthesis independently but obtains water and minerals from the tree it is attached to. So basically, it’s a leech. The business of kissing beneath mistletoe came from a Celtic tradition of placing a small amount of it above the door of homes during the winter as a sign of life despite the dreary weather; mistletoe remains green throughout the winter. The thought was hanging it over the doorway ensured harmony within the premises.

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Or, in current terminology, money and first aid: Think about the gifts from the three wise men. Gold, I get; giving money as a gift is both safe and a no-brainer. WebMD defines frankincense as a hardened gum-like material that is made from cuts in the trunk of a Boswellia carteri tree. WebMD also describes myrrh as a resin from bark resin, and is used to treat indigestion, colds, even colic. Having experienced a baby with colic, I know that’s a gift worth more than gold. Money and medicine; those three were truly wise.

And the holiday writing honor goes to …

In 2018 I cited the wonderful work of Ysabel Yates, who penned a noir-esque critique of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in The New York Times. My favorite line: “His nose glowed like the end of every cigarette he swore would be his last.” This year I turn the spotlight to a great piece written 13 years ago by Steve DiMeo, a writer and marketing pro in Philadelphia. Steve took the classic “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and reimagined it, South Philadelphia style. “A Visit From Uncle Nick” is a fun read even if you are not from Philadelphia. Some snippets:

Da brats were outta hand
From eatin’ too much candy.
We told them to go to bed
Or there wouldn’t be no Santy.

And me in my sweatpants,
Da wife’s hair fulla rollers,
Plopped our butts on the sofa
To fight over remote controllers.

When out in da shtreet,
There was all dis friggin’ noise.
It sounded like a mob hit,
Ya’ know, by Gambino and his boys.

The full poem is on my website.

Happy holidays, and let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. Before that he lived in the Philadelphia area for almost 30 years and can strut with the best of them.


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