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Dreck in the halls

Though I lack both minions and janissaries, this blog does receive reports from volunteer sentinels, one of whom reported today the first sighting of a ’tis the season headline. In a newspaper in New Jersey. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

So, even though we have not even endured Halloween—urchins being trained to beg in public, surly adolescents trolling for candy, raw egg dripping down the picture window—it becomes necessary to issue the annual caution against holiday cliches that You Don’t Say provides.

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must mention Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage — and dignity — than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Ignore all tiresome objections to Xmas from people who do not understand that it is an innocuous abbreviation. The Roman alphabet X in this case is understood as the Greek letter chi, also X, which is the first letter of Christos. Xmas in no way takes Christ out of Christmas.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And typically they do not scan.*

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality comforts them. It is for such people that television exists.


*If you are in any way traditional in outlook, or informed, you understand that Christmas was originally a twelve-day liturgical season, running from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The modern, saccharine, holly jolly Christmas, which can barely wait until the post-Thanksgiving-dinner Alka-Seltzer is swallowed, has essentially effaced the original. Do not try to swim against the current.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:59 PM | | Comments (30)


You've just challenged me to use all of those in the same, woefully unreadable article.

Yes, the tired phrases ought to be out.

Oh, you might wish to correct the typo in your lead par — "Ina".

Whether the X in Xmas is the Greek letter chi or not, many Christians (including my church friends and me) would rather spell Christmas in full. The reason is that the season came about because of Christ. (The argument that Christ's birth wasn't on Dec 25 is a separate matter.)

'tseems our host is averse to the "'t"-construction doesn't 't? Me, I find 'tgives the woefully underutilised apostrophe some much-needed exposure, and the text 'n air of suave jollyness perfect for quality small-town publications.

Are there no workhouses for editors who insist on putting holiday cliches on headlines?

Must we totally eschew the archaic 't contractions, or only those that are seasonal? 'twould be a great loss. As for being "traditional," it is more of a religious thing for me. I will not allow commercialism to deprive me of Advent.

What, pray, is the "current" we're advised not to try to/and swim against if not the list of cliches? Isn't 'twasing and Grinching and all the rest just another instance of Santa's supplanting Jesus? My question isn't entirely rhetorical; I'd appreciate reflections on the distinction, if there is one.

Thank you, thank you.
When did Halloween become such a BIG deal--for adults?

dread the shop-worn language and decor...

But I like humbug! My Dad always made sure we had a dish full of it on the sideboard as Christmas approached.

But we must be allowed to remember the travails of Miss Cynthia Bracegirdle, as written by Brian Sibley and performed by Penelope Keith (transcript):

There isn't any question about the "x" in "Xmas" representing chi. It's done so for nearly 900 years. It began in Christian writing, and it's about as Christian as you can get.

In the OED's citation list, "Xpes maesse" gets in a decade earlier than "Cristes maesse." The "p" represents rho, the second letter in the Greek rendering of "Christ." If you ever saw an "XP" monogram in a church, that's what you were seeing.

The only reason not to use "Xmas" is that some people won't be shaken of the false notion that it's a secularist commie plot. I vote we start using "Xpesmass" instead.

The list of Christmas cliches is impressie and funny, but the cliches would bother me more if Christmas, itself, were not a cliche. Christmas is when you do this, this and that, and when you write this, this and that. In these terrible times of too few journalism jobs, it's worth remembering that no reporter or editor ever lost a job because of a cliche, but original thought has hamstrung many a career. Yes, Virginia, there is safety in cliches. Incidentally, I wrote the best Christmas spirit story of all time. The local prosecutor avoided jury trials during the Christmas season because, he said, while Christmas bells were ringing he couldn't buy a conviction. Wish I'd had the list of cliches when I wrote the story. I would have had a shot at using them all. I might have gotten a better paying job, perhaps with a greeting card company.

Nice one, Jim Sweeney!

It seems to me that the use of cliches shows either a lack of imagination or a plethora of bad writing.

In the Christian church - or much of it anyway - Christmas still ends on the Feast of the Epiphany, which is when we've always taken down the tree. That the secular world has more and more departed from the spiritual one merely reflects how the secular world has gotten into more and more trouble.

Some decorations are left up after Twelfth Night? Are the Little People not indigenous to the Americas, then?

Going to church, (or how you say Xmas) doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car......

Absolutely right, Lorraine, and I'm living proof of all three assertions.

On the other hand, repeated visits to church may make one a better Christian, whereas standing in the garage will never make you a car - a bicycle, perchance, or a garden hose but not a car. And what one has to do with the other I'll never know. What make and model are you, Picky, old clot?

Well, I had rather hoped I might be an early Type 35 Bugatti, but Lorraine's right: this just isn't working.

Hey Picky....We hit the trifecta ........
Made Patrica terser than usual.....
Good job.....

There is an argument that Christmas is a 40 day festival ending around Candlemas - but there.

Meanwhile ...

Michael Penn Moore: many of us, I dare say, are unimpressed with 21st C Santafied Christmas, but there is no untouched-by-human-hand Jesussed Christmas to go back to.  It was a  conjured-up foundation story of the early church and it's spread and grown and changed ever since.  That doesn't stop it carrying intense meaning for Christians, but it does mean there's no copyright on it, I'm afraid.

Bugati - Si! Or quite possibly a Lamborghini. (The Italians recently build a police car Lamborghini - can you imagine being pursued by an offical Lamborghini on the autostrada? Andiamo, presto!!!)

Mmm, but I would be very tempted not to waste public money by waiting for nebulous concepts like "reasonable suspicion" - I might just chase any innocent citizen up and down the autostrada. No. Not cricket. Better go back into the garage and see if I can become a Blower Bentley.

Thank you for pointing out that Chanukah is not a twin to Christmas (I refer to this phenomenon as Christmas Jr.). Do you have any Chanukah clichés for us to avoid?

Is it okay to talk about the Fetivus Pole or are you a curmudgeon about that also?

I'm thrilled to learn of "the annual caution ... which YDS provides annually." Is this the one-year anniversary of its previous appearance?

Well, it's the annual yearly birthday anniversary of the annual yearly birthday reappearance (this year).

"Stocking stuffers" make me gag.

And then there are 1) our feathered friends, when "birds" will do nicely and 2) our neighbors to the North, when Canada is more to the point.

Cliches are something between a laxative and softener for every holiday-themed collection of words. Telling us not to use any seasonal cliche or to minimize such use to a sparing measure is like telling us to get ready for an unpleasant form of irregularity. Here's an example of the first paragraph of 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' cleansed of cliches:

Twas the nocturnal segment of the diurnal period preceding the annual
yuletide celebration. And throughout our place of residence, kinetic activity
was not in evidence among the possessors of this potential, including that species of domestic rodent known as mus musclus. Hosiery was meticulously suspended from the forward edge of the wood-burning caloric apparatus, pursuant to our anticipatory pleasure regarding an eminent visitation from an eccentric
philanthropist among whose folkloric appellations is the honorific title of St.

'Nuff said. (Pardon the passive voice.)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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