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The holiday cautions

I know that it’s not even Halloween yet, but today someone at, someone who will be lucky to ’scape whipping, referred to tomorrow’s impending snow as “white stuff.” This must be nipped, and nipped promptly. I therefore republish the annual holiday cautions. Chestnuts roasting by an open fire are fine, but they should be kept out of copy and headlines.

You have been advised.

“’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 is right out.

“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. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

“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. And should be.

Stocking stuffers: Stuff it.

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 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; it merely abbreviates.

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.*

On no account are you to publish that execrable article on the estimated cost of the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Whoever gets assigned to write it every year patently did something very, very bad in a previous life. If you have been guilty of publishing that thing in the past, do not compound your sin.

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’t even wait until the post-Thanksgiving-dinner Alka-Seltzer is swallowed, has essentially effaced the original. There is no point of trying to swim publicly against the current, though you are free to observe Advent privately.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:05 PM | | Comments (28)


How about references to Terry Pratchett's Discworld™ holiday Hogswatch, as elucidated in his book Hogfather?
From the Ides of Harvest to the Return of the Sun and the Year, it's the Season.
My favorite quotation, among many:

Happy Hogswatch All and May Gods Bless Us, Every One.
(Atheists may request the vegetarian alternative.)

THANK YOU for these reminders. I forwarded them to my local paper with thin hopes. Thanks to the author of this feast of good guidelines. God bless us, every one.

"There is no point of trying to swim against the current, though you are free to observe Advent privately. "

No point? I try every year. The manic, happy-faced, media-driven secular Christmas that surrounds us for an entire month is very tiresome. So I observe a proper Advent, as it sets up Christmas Day very nicely. I find shopping online also helps, as it keeps me out of the treacly malls entirely during December. (Though I do try to catch "A Christmas Carol" if it's on. Scott's is best though Sim's will do.)

Kem White,

"Treacly malls", indeed!

Nice Dickensian touch there, Kem. The beleaguered Oliver Twist immediately came to mind.

In my view the whole over-commercialization of Christmas has become such a predictable, garish, over-blown spectacle. Sadly, nowadays, there's very little "Christ" in Christmas. Blatant secularism appears to rule this once hallowed holiday.

It appears that at the very moment that the last wedge of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie-a-la-mode is devoured, and the roast turkey 'leavings' (bones-gristle-and-all) are tossed into the steaming soup cauldron, the merry Xmas materialist march officially begins in earnest. (Truth be told, it likely starts sometime in October, even before Halloween..... but whose really keeping track?)

In these most challenging economic times, ironically many a struggling American family will be undoubtedly spending far beyond their current fiscal means to 'celebrate' the season. Admittedly, this seasonal increase in individual spending will temporarily boost the U.S. economy's bottom-line, yet it in turn hurts the average American household's financial bottom-line by adding more accumulated family debt.

So many folk have lost the real intent and profound message of Christmas---the birth of Christian believers' true Savior and Messiah, Jesus Christ, born, as the Biblical narrative claims, in that humblest of mangers in the town of Bethlehem.

Sadly most folks these days think the Three Wise Men are The Pep Boys---- Manny, Moe and Jack.(Ugh!)

Hmm........ just hypothetically, say the Three Wise Men ("We three kings from orient are...") were living today, still retaining their traditional, distinctive, ornate Middle-Eastern garb from 2000-plus years back, and were attempting to board a flight, say out of LAX to the Holy Land----- would they be pulled aside by airport security and forced to undergo a full body (cavity) search, or one of the new-fangled mechanical full-body scans? Frankincense and myrrh, indeed!

Airport security, in their infinite officiousness, and due diligence, can still be highly suspicious of those swarthy Middle-Eastern types, no? Just ask any of the former big-wigs working in the G.W. Bush administration. What racial profiling? But I digress.

Kem, for me no Xmas season would be quite complete without a viewing of some movie version of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol'. Since my youth I've had a special regard for Alistair Sim's Ebenezer Scrooge, although George C. Scott admittedly did a fine updated reprise of the iconic role. George Patton as Scrooge? Now that's a true acting tour de force. HA!


To clarify, Kem White, I added "publicly" to "swim against the current."

The problem with Xmas is that a lot of jolly elves pronounce it "ex-mas."

It's too late.

Christmas junk already appears in the stores. Christmas clichés are unpacked, dusted, and in line, ready for abuse. Snow in the Northeast will trigger the onslaught.

Think I need a long nap. Wake me in January...

Let's not forget the ban on those insipid articles on the "true cost" of the twelve days of Christmas.

Excellent point. I've added a caution.

"Christmas came early" when this Business headline came across my desk last week: "Santa better load up on tablet computers."

Your addition on the 12 Days of Xmas has two typos. I thought, as a copy editor, you'd like to know....

(I won't wish you a Merry Christmas, as Thanksgiving isn't over yet.)

I'd make an exception for Bob and Doug McKenzie's Twelve Days of Christmas ("And a beer!").

Also, any references to Dominick the Donkey are OK in my book (Hey, Dominick! Buon Natale!).

You forgot the time-honored TV-news lead-in: "It's ironic in this season of good will toward men that . . . "



I wonder if jolly old Santa has current Twitter and Facebook accounts? Must have oodles of 'Friends', no?

Read a charming little piece on Yahoo! News this morning on some thriving Santa 'academy' in Michigan------ considered the Harvard of Santa schools. (Wonder if they give out Bachelors degrees in Santology on graduation? Groan).

Yahoo! ran an accompanying full-color photo of two rather portly, bearded dead-ringer Santa wannabes taking a break from their arduous course load (right), looking like they'd just stepped off the pages of a vintage Saturday Evening post illustrated Coca-Cola commercial. Couldn't really tell if their rosy cheeks were natural, or cosmetically enhanced.

It was kinda strange seeing them relaxing in the academy quad decked out in full de rigueur Santa gear--red suit, black boots, belt, and all----on a bright and sunny Michigan Fall day, w/ the ambient tree foliage well into its late-season 'turning' cycle. But living here for decades in Southern California, I'm used to out-of-context Santas in these palm-treed, balmy, semi-desert climes. No biggie. Surfin' Santas are a-dime-a-dozen. HA!

Yet seriously folks, Xmas day beckons w/ a mere seven weeks to go. (Ugh!)

I'm sure the can't-resist Apple iPad, and sundry other attractive portable tablet devices, plus majorly discounted flat screen LED TVs will be among the hot-ticket techie items on Santa's check list this Christmas season.

Whether you're naughty or nice, good old Saint Nick has YOUR number.

Rumor has it that Rudolph's schnoz will be solar powered this year. Even Santa's thinking GREEN.


Joe McVeigh,

Right on, Joe!

In my book those former SCTV stalwarts, the McKenzie Bros. could almost do no wrong. (And not much right, either....... come to think of it.)

As a born-and-bred Canuck, these two bona fide 'hosers' will always have a special place in my heart.

These backwoods boozers single-handedly flaunted every Canadian character shortcoming, and quirky speech affectation (eh!), reminding the world at large that beer (preferably Moosehead, or Molson's Golden), and home-grown back-bacon were pretty much the essential ingredients in leading the Canadian highlife........... at least the hoser highlife. Some might suggest....... lowlife.

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas......... thanks for the memories, eh.

The Great White North has never been the same. (Sob!)


P.S.:----- I've attached a short YouTube promo clip for a fairly recently produced animated version of the McKenzie Bros. feature film, "The Twelve Days of Christmas". Enjoy.


As a newspaperman, I find this to be sound advice. Therefore, it promptly will be ignored by most newspapers in the country.

To your list of tautologies, considering adding that favorite of TV series promos: "All new" as in a "All-new Glee."

Other than the needlessly snarky last line, thanks for this.

Print writers resorting to "I'm intelligent, TV is not" is also an old, tired saw. If writers weren't using lazy language all over the place, you wouldn't have had to write this in the first place!

And please, no "Turkey Day"! No tedious stories about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which makes two-bit writers feel like retail economists as they "explain" what these dubious terms mean and go on and on about their significance

Hmmmm.....Why don't we just ignore Christmas altogether? That seems to be the safest course of action. And I'm sure readers would LOVE it..... /sarcasm

In all seriousness, most of these are fine guidelines, but there ought be nothing wrong with "stocking stuffers" or "ringing in the new year" or even "bah humbug" in the proper context, and if not overused. Also, run a survey of your readers to see how many of them actually know what “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is. I'm betting it would confuse many if not paired with its opening line, by which most people know it. (Although I agree that indirect allusions and other use of "'twasing" are best avoided.)

Finally, "Xmas" reeks of journalese and abbreviation for the sake of abbreviation. Even in headlines.

Yes, many clichés should be avoided, but let's not get ridiculous. Last I checked, Christmas still happens. (Hanukkah, too.)

Another that bothers me is "Just in time for Christmas," as if it were a happy accident instead of an obvious plan.

I have a friend who used to perform Christmas carols at the mall with a small group (presumably to make people spend more as they hummed along). One year an onlooker requested "Everybody knows a turkey." He got puzzled looks until he elaborated "You know--everybody knows/a turkey and some mistletoe/help to make the season bright ..."

Fantastic post. But I think the assignment editors out there need to hear this:
Assign a trite story, get trite copy.

There's only so much lipstick deadline-oppressed reporters and copy eds can put on pigs --- if you'll permit me the semi-ironic use of such a metaphor :)

I must take exception to the idea that Christmas is (or should be) all about Christ. A lot of people celebrate Christmas who aren't even religious.

Well, we can all rest easy. According to AP's annual accounting of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the cost of French hens, calling birds, gold rings, maids-a-milking, ladies dancing and lords-a-leaping didn't go up this year.

I find this article, and its message, to be written by a pretentious writer/editor for other writer/editors. 99 pervent of the public like, and take comfort in, the seasonal clichés you find so tiresome. There is a reason Hallmark makes hundreds of millions and editors do not.

It's pleasant to see that Anonymous has arrived at the same conclusion that I did in the last paragraph. (Some readers ...)

I find this article, and its message, to be written by a pretentious writer/editor for other pretentious writer/editors. Ninety-nine percent of the public are not bothered by the seasonal clichés you find so tiresome. There is a reason Hallmark makes hundreds of millions and editors do not. Maybe your assumption of knowing better than your customers (and saving them from themselves), is also a reason that television is booming and newspapers are dying.

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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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