Top Holiday Expressions and Their Meanings

It’s that time of the year! Whether a rockin’ Ramadan, happy Hannukah, quintessential Kwanzaa or even just a Merry Christmas*, all of us here at Voxy hope your winter holidays are full of wonder and fun (and not just bad roads, flight cancellations, illnesses and in-laws visiting…)

And, no matter where you are, here’s hoping the New Year brings you tons of success in all parts of your life, but especially in improving your English! Here to help are a few tricky “winter” phrases: these common expressions seem straightforward, but don’t mean quite what they seem…

  1. Let’s talk colors: you’ll hear several black-and-white phrases this time of the year, and they’re both for dates that people look forward to. The first is a “White Christmas” – this means a Christmas Day when snow has actually fallen overnight. It’s famous because it’s also the title of the most popular holiday song in the US, first released during World War II.
  2. A few weeks before Christmas, everyone gets ready for “Black Friday.” It’s not a bad day, though, the way the name might imply. It’s called “Black” Friday because “in the black” is an old idiom for “making a profit,” and this is the day when stores try their hardest to do just that by offering huge post-Thanksgiving sales.
  3. What’s winter without snow? (“Normal,” say the billions of people who live south of DC…) In English we have two “snowy” passive phrasals that you’ll hear all the time. The first, to be “snowed under,” doesn’t actually have anything to do with weather. It means “to be overworked or way too busy,” as in: “Our programmers are snowed under this weekend: they’re writing the updates to the Voxy app and can’t stop until it’s perfect!”
  4. The second phrasal is all about the weather: if somebody doesn’t want to be “snowed in,” it means they don’t want to be trapped inside from all the snow outdoors. So yeah, it’s possible to be both snowed in and snowed under at the same time: but only if you telecommute.
  5. “Snow” also pairs with two words to make totally new phrases that don’t’ mean at all waht they look like. If someone’s doing a “snow job,” they’ll probably need a shovel, right? In fact, a snow job is any complex deception, or any lie that’s told as a dense story. So really, no matter what month it is, you can probably turn on the TV and find someone doing a snow job: even if it’s 85° outside!
  6. A snow day sounds pretty simple: it’s a day that snows! Well, yes and no: people really only use the term “snow day” if the snowfall caused an institution to close or an event to be cancelled (most often public school, but sometimes even people’s offices.) And don’t get us started on snow bunnies…
  7. We’ll wrap up with a few quick collocations for snow and winter: sure, you can say a specific winter was “bad” or “good,” but people usually say it was a “harsh” winter or a “mild” winter. And that white stuff falling on the ground? We usually describe it as “heavy or light,” and “powdery or packed.”

*Okay, one more expression: special bonus trivia round! In the US, you’ll almost always hear people wish you a “Merry Christmas,” but in the UK, people more often say “Happy Christmas.” Why the difference? It comes from the 1900’s: “Merry Christmas” was the only greeting for hundreds of years, but Victorian-era society decided to change it.

The reason? A hundred-plus years ago, “merry” had a second meaning: it meant “very, very drunk.” Believe it or not – more so than gifts or church or pine trees – this was the way most workers celebrated the day. (Hey, no work on the 26th!) The Victorians wanted to end this sort of behavior, so they encouraged the new, more neutral phrase “Happy Christmas.” Of course, by this time the US and UK were two different countries, and the new expression never caught on in the US.