Ask LL: A paradox of words?

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Charlie Clingen writes:

This year I have started to notice an ambiguous use of the terms Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. In the good old days, it seems to me that those terms commonly were used to mean the evening of the day before Christmas Day/New Year’s Day. Now, in addition to those meanings, I have been hearing them used to mean the entire day before Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, especially in weather forecasts and financial news. Are the terms Christmas Eve Day and New Year’s Eve Day becoming less popular? I admit it does save a few bits here and there; maybe the occasional ambiguity is worth it.

This may be an instance of the Recency Illusion. At least, the second sense for eve in the OED is glossed  "The evening, and hence usually the day before a Saint's day or other church festival. Hence gen. the evening, or the day, before any date or event", with citations back to 1290, at least some of which clearly refer to the whole preceding day:

a1662 BP. B. DUPPA Rules to Devotion (J.), Let the immediate preceding day be kept as the eve to this great feast.

On the other hand, current news writing is full of hundreds of sentences about "Christmas Eve morning" and "New Year's Eve morning":

At about 2:00 am Christmas Eve morning, a man stopped to give a woman a ride near Northern Lights and Old Seward Highway.

The Senate reached a milestone in passing health care reform early Christmas Eve morning …

Some area drivers will have to navigate slick roads if they're headed to work Christmas Eve morning.

A weak coastal storm threatens a light mix of precipitation late tonight into New Year's Eve morning.

The game will take place on New Year's Eve morning, Thursday December 31, at 11am.

In contrast, in all the past history of English literature, at least as recorded by LION, the string "eve morning" occurs exactly once, in a 1983 poem by Jenny Joseph, "Beyond Descartes", which contains the line

113   Christmas Eve morning—a paradox of words

And the Google News Archive graphs for "Christmas Eve morning" vs. "Christmas Eve" suggest a meaningful recent increase in usage of the former, just as Charlie suggests:

(That lonesome datapoint in 1902 is from the Chicago Tribune: "Thackeray was only 52 years of age that sad Christmas eve morning when he was found dead in his bed.")

As for "Christmas Eve day" and "New Year's Eve day", they don't seem to have a very different history. English literature is entirely innocent of any instance of either expression, according to LION. The Google News Archive timeline for "Christmas Eve day" looks roughly similar to that of "Christmas Eve morning":

The "__ Eve day" expressions seem to be roughly as frequent in current usage as the "__ Eve morning" expressions. (I'm not sure what accounts for the odd Google News numbers for New Year's Eve day vs. morning — vagaries of current weather reports?)

Google News COCA LDC News
Christmas Eve morning 267 14 19
Christmas Eve day 228 5 28
New Year's Eve morning 917 2 5
New Year's Eve day 10 6 13

I'll leave it to others to track down "Christmas Eve day morning", "the morning of Christmas Eve (day)", and recursive constructions like "New Year's Eve Eve", and just join Charlie in wishing everyone

Happy New Year’s! (all three: eve day, eve, and day)


  1. Mark Anderson said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    All Hallows Eve seems to have gone the same way.

  2. Tonio said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    You might search also for "{morning/afternoon/evening} of {Christmas/New Year's} Eve".

    [(myl) And so might you!]

  3. Picky said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    To me (BrE) Christmas Eve has always (and only) meant the whole day; New Year's Eve likewise, and Hallowe'en etc. Nothing new at all about eve/even (as in German Abend) meaning both evening and day before; morn/morrow (as in German Morgen) meaning both morning and day after.

  4. Brett said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    The first time I remember coming across "Christmas Eve morning" in the 1980s, I assumed it was an innovation. However, later that day, I came across the same phrase in an early 20th-century source. Presumably, had the recency illusion not been proven wrong so quickly, I wouldn't remember any of this.

  5. Ben said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    That's true for me too. I've only ever heard "… Eve" constructions to mean the entire day before the referent, whether it be Christmas, New Year's, or any other day. I wasn't even aware of the alternate meaning of just the evening prior–in fact, "… Eve day" constructions (e.g. "Chistmas Eve day") seem pretty awkward to me (akin to "Yesderday day"). Though "… Eve morning" and "… Eve evening" sound perfectly fine to me (akin to "Yesterday morning" and "Yesterday evening").

  6. Ben said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    When I said "That's true for me too" I was referring to what Picky said.

  7. vp said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    This is not just Recency Illusion; it's "Reverse Recency Illusion".

    The usage claimed to be recent (Christmas Eve referring to the whole day) is in fact ancient.

    The usage claimed to be traditional or well established ("Christmas Eve Day") seems to be very recent. (FWIW I've never heard it).

  8. John Cowan said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    In speaking with my Jewish friends, I am accustomed to call December 24 "Erev Christmas".

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    When I last looked into something like this, it appeared that at least from medieval times, the day ended, and the next began, at sundown, so Christmas Eve qua evening really was part of December 25, and there was nothing special about December 24. Similarly for All Hallow's Eve and a palletload of saints' days. I don't know when somebody decided that the date should roll over in the middle of the night; presumably it was after we got clocks. Of course that decision had no effect on how anybody celebrated holidays, for a long time.

    I haven't been able to figure out yet how this makes Easter Sunday come three days after Good Friday. I keep counting "one, two…", "one, two…", and it never comes out right, at least never twice in a row.

  10. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    Include Good Friday in your counting. Good Friday is the first day, Easter Saturday the second day, Easter Sunday "the third day", when, according to the Apostles' Creed, "he rose again from the dead".

  11. Graeme said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    And the vigil held after dusk on 'Good Friday' is really held on Easter Saturday, the Saturday beginning at sundown and being the 2nd day of the festival.

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    Speaking of beginnings, has it ever been discussed in this worthy forum why the Germanic languages start the week on Sunday and the Romance languages start the week on Monday?

  13. Daan said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:16 am

    Dutch is a Germanic language, but the first day of our week would generally be reckoned to be Monday, not Sunday. I'm also not entirely sure if this is language-related, rather than a cultural thing.

  14. Marion Crane said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    I agree with Daan, that the starting day of the week doesn't depend on the language but rather on the culture (and even then, I've known people who considered Sunday the first day of the month, but they were always a minority).

    Also, what Nathan said about days starting in the evening in times gone past: we see that in the Netherlands at Christmas, where 'Kerstavond' is the evening of 24 December, even though 24 is not a holiday in itself. (Everyone goes home early on 24 December, to prepare for Christmas, but that's just logistics, not a holiday.) However, Dutch doesn't follow this rule for New Year's Eve: 1 January is 'nieuwjaarsdag', 31 December is 'oudejaarsavond' or 'oudejaarsdag'. The entire process is called 'oud en nieuw'. Given the way Christmas works, 'oudejaarsavond' should refer to 30 December, but it doesn't. I rather suspect that 'oudejaarsavond' is a younger term than 'Kerstavond', from when people no longer considered a day to start in the evening.

  15. justin said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 7:59 am

    This Charlie Clingen fellow obviously has a defect in his idiolect which put him out of whack with 99% of English speakers. I can't believe you wrote a whole blog entry on it! Haha. I would have just dismissed it as "poor dude doesn't know eve means 'the day before' and is confusing it with another word 'eve' which is connected to 'evening'".

    [(myl) The OED treats the two as different senses of the same word, and the AHD treats them as part of the same sense of the same word ("the evening or the day before a holiday, church festival, or any date or event"). And the fact that in 400 years of English literature, no one used a phrase of the form "__ eve morning" or "__ eve day" until 1983 — whereas there are 900-odd journalistic uses of "Christmas Eve morning" this year alone, suggests that Charlie has correctly noted a change in usage, even if his analysis of it was a bit off. So haha right back at you, and please consider taking advantage of our standing offer to refund double your subscription fee in case of less than full satisfaction.]

  16. Charlie C said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    Thanks for correcting my analysis, Mark, and thanks to all for the interesting insights. Having been singed occasionally in online discussions since the early 70’s, I know how easy it is to say things online that one wouldn’t normally say face-to-face. But the pain is worth the gain. Anyway, I suppose I’ll have to wait until Christmase’en and Newyeare’en come into use, at which point the problem will go away. Here’s to a long life!

  17. panne said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    In Norwegian, "julaften" ("Christmas evening") means the whole day of the 24th. Even though "aften" means night, it's a really old-fashioned word, so I suspect at least some speakers don't think of it as meaning night or evening, but as some sort of cranberry morph.

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    Some of the "Christmas Eve day" instances appear to actually be "Christmas Eve/Day" – i.e. two days (or an evening and a day) taken in conjunction.

  19. David said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    I agree with Daan: in Swedish, also a Germanic language, måndag (Monday) would be the first day of the week.

    Also, just as panne said: in Swedish, "julafton" (Christmas Eve) refers to the whole day. "Afton" is slighly old-fashioned but not so much that ordinary language users wouldn't understand the original meaning.

    The same thing goes for nyårsafton (New Year's Eve) which one would also be hard-stretched to understand simply as the evening and not the entire day.

  20. David Crosbie said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    Except when I was very young, I have always understood Eve to signify the whole day. And in the phrase on the eve of I could be talking about a period longer than one day.

  21. mollymooly said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    In Ireland up till about the 1950s the late part of December 24 was "Christmas Night" and the late part of December 25 was "Christmas Day Night".

    I don't know how they might have interpreted "Christmas evening", but to me it does not occur on "Christmas Eve".

  22. Clarissa said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 1:54 am

    Huh. I've always thought "eve" could refer to the whole day, but I think "Christmas Eve morning/day" sounds off-kilter, and would say "the morning of Christmas Eve" (and think "Christmas Eve day" would be redundant in many situations).

  23. Andrew C. said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    "Monday" in Portuguese, a Romance language, is "segunda feira". That suggests rather strongly that it is not considered the first day of the week, contrary to Dan Lufkin's supposition.

  24. Picky said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    The stuff about the day starting the evening before doesn't really cut the mustard in explaining this idiom. The interesting thing is that not only does eve/even mean the day before (as well as evening) but morn/morrow means the day following (as well as morning) – as though one were at midnight, looking forward and back. And the other interesting thing (he tediously reiterated) is that similar meanings attach to Abend and Morgen auf Deutsch – which suggests the phenomenon may be much, much older than mediaeval.

  25. Vicki Baker said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    OK, professor, I did the homework:

    Seems like "morning of" and "afternoon of" are more evenly distributed through the timeline than the "Christmas eve morning" construction.

    "The stuff about the day starting the evening before doesn't really cut the mustard in explaining this idiom."

    But these aren't ordinary days, they are magic or holy days, and the magic or holy stuff happens at night in all most all of the holidays of the Western tradition, no?

  26. marie-lucie said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    In French the equivalent of the old eve or e(v)en is la veille, which used to mean the act of staying awake (veiller) when one might have been sleeping after a day's work. Nowadays la veille means not only the night before but also the day before another day. So Christmas Eve is la veille de Noël, but in my own mind and use it mostly means the evening, after work, when one makes the final preparations for the next day, rather than the entire day, when one might be working or shopping.

    There is a colloquial expression c'est pas demain la veille meaning literally "tomorrow is not the eve", or actually "no use waiting for it, it will never happen".

  27. Picky said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 5:05 am

    Certainly the magic stuff happens at night on St Agnes' Eve.

  28. Picky said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    @marie-lucie: When did the extension of meaning of "la veille" happen?

  29. Ken Brown said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Assuming tht "veille" in French is the same as "vigil" in English, it is interesting that it has been extended into daylight. What word would be used of night-time prayer or church service? In church liturgical use in English a "vigil" is always during the hours of darkness. But "eve" as everyone agrees here is the whole previous day.

    I don't think it is to do with the liturgical ambiguity between changing the day name at sunset or at midnight. I was recently told by a Roman Catholic priest that either 8pm on Saturday or 8pm on Sunday could satisfy an obligation to go to Mass on Sunday, so the liturgical festival is longer then 24 hours. In effect a liturgical day overlaps with its Eve. But apparently that only applies to major festivals . So this evening (it is Saturday where I am now) can be counted as the start of Sunday (every Sunday is technically a festival of the Resurrection) but yesterday evening probably wasn't a Vigil of St Basil (Basil probably isn't important enough – though he might be in a church dedicated to him)

  30. Aaron Davies said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    afaik the only people to reckon days from sundown to sundown are jews (and possibly muslims). istr that the day in europe was once reckoned noon to noon though.

    sunday as the first day of the week is presumably due again to a jewish reckoning, where "and on the seventh day he rested" refers to the "saturday" (i.e. friday sundown to saturday sundown) sabbath. monday as the first day i would generally assume to be a modernism referring to the work-week. see Week-day names for more info.

    strictly to the topic, i think i always considered "christmas eve" to refer to the night before, not the whole day, but i think that was mostly just due to my family having specific traditions for that night (a dinner, some reading aloud, some years opening a single present). we'd say "christmas eve day" if we needed to refer to the daylight portion, but i think i thought of it as something of a coinage–it seemed a logical expression, but something i'd seen elsewhere.

  31. Sili said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    The week shifted from starting Sunday to Monday sometime in the seventies in Denmark, I think.

    I'd use "Juleaften" as a shorthand for the whole day, but "Juleaftensdag" is a perfectly ordinary word in Danish. To some extent, perhaps, to divide the 'normal' working day from the festivities of the evening and and night.

  32. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Ken Brown: While 'vigil' referring to an actual ceremony is, as you say, always during the hours of darkness, there's a well-established use of 'vigil' to mean the day before a festival – the 1662 Prayer Book lists 'the vigils or eves before' various feasts (including Christmas) as days of fasting or abstinence. I believe traditional Catholic usage is similar.

    My guess is that this arises from the well-attested custom of holding services earlier than they were originally meant to be held, often because one was meant to fast until after the service. Thus, the vigil mass of Christmas, originally held after sunset, came to be held during the hours of daylight on December 24th – which would explain how both 'vigil' and 'eve' came to be applied to that day. (The vigil mass, by the way, is not the same as the midnight mass. Lots of feasts have vigil masses, while only Christmas has a midnight mass.)

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