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tidings

“Glad tidings we bring… to you and your thing!…”

Somehow halfway through that line everyone else had suddenly begun to sing much more quietly and my voice was rather… salient. There may have been a glance or two in my direction. Oh, come on, people, it’s a carol sing! Make merry! Play around a bit! Glad tidings, you know?

Tidings is one of the classic Christmas words, right up there with hark. It does get used in other places – there’s a wine magazine that used to be called Wine Tidings (it’s now Quench) – but most of its great cultural associations have to do with Christmas, a prime vector being the King James Version rendition of Luke 2:10: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” From that it spread to carols such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (quoted above) and “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (“O, tidings of comfort and joy”), and on to assorted cultural references.

What, exactly, are (is? are? both conjugations are used in literature) tidings? In short, they are (it is) news. But not just any news! Oh, no, no. This is a word with poetical and Biblical associations, which means that the news is classic, timeless, historic, epic, important, portentous… A friend who says “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings” is drawing on that tone, probably for self-consciously pompous effect; it would seem too self-important to use for a death or other actual grave event, but it would be quite suitable for a fallen soufflé or a dearth of chocolate or the discovery that the liquor store is quite out of the preferred brand of Cognac for mixing with the expensive eggnog. (Martell, by the way.)

All of which may befall us sooner or later; time and tide happen to us all. And yes, that tide is tied to this tidings. The ancient root from which they both spring is a Germanic stem referring to happenings, befallings, incidents and accidents; the sense of hints and allegations – the news of the incidents and accidents – comes from that. As the tide happens to come in and go out, and the tides of the time turn, and as other things betide us all, we get the tidings, just as the new things that occur are reported as the news. And yes, you can also have a singular tiding, but usually we get the plural (though, as I have said, sometimes it’s treated as a singular, as news is); it seems that just one tiding is not often enough to tide us over.

So when an advent for the ages is reported, of course it’s tidings. But of great joy, people! Even if we’re in an Estonian Lutheran church basement! We were singing our carols just downstairs from where Aina and I had gotten married a mere few years earlier, and I was going to do my thing, even if that’s news to some of you.

tidings

“Glad tidings we bring to you and your thing!”

I’m sure that must have been someone else belting that out at the church carol-sing when somehow all the other people’s voices parted, Red-Sea-like, for a moment, right?

Well, look, it rhymes, OK? Unlike that “kin” version.

Just never mind. Stuff happens.

Anyway, I’m not on about the kin thing today. The more Christmassy word is tidings. Tidings of comfort and joy! “Glad tidings of great joy,” as the angel said (in the King James version).

What are tidings? They’re not tidyings, anyway. Those are what you get after all the wrapping-paper-shredding. And they’re not tithings, though those may happen around the same time as tidings is said and sung (oh, who are we kidding? the people who tithe do it year-round, while the Christmas-only crowd drop in fivers and quarters). They’re also not to do with the laundry detergent required to clean the spilled wine, cranberry sauce, eggnog, and other stuff. Although that last is at least related.

It’s Christmastide, after all, which is also Yuletide (for those who prefer the old pagan name). A great rising sea of music, food, light, decoration, and things (boughten and later forgoughten) washes over us all, leaving the seaweed and starfish of commerce when it later retreats. The coming of the new year is perfectly timed to allow us to resolve not to do all that again. For at least, um, 48 weeks. Ish. With occasional exceptions. Things happen, you know.

And time and tide happen to us all. Which doesn’t mean we all get inundated (though we do). Tide is, originally, something that happens, or a time it happens in. Woe betide our enemies! Meaning ‘Unhappiness happen to our enemies’! And all these Yuletides and so on. It’s a grand old Germanic root, the same one that gave modern German Zeit, meaning ‘time’.

And, from that, Zeitung, meaning ‘news’. That ung suffix is directly related to the ing in tiding. So tiding could be ‘happening’ but it also could be ‘news’. In fact, tidings may trace not so much to English tide+ing as to Old Norse tíðendi, ‘happenings, news of happenings’, since we may notice that happenings is not used as much to mean ‘news of happenings’. We may say “What are today’s happenings?” but we are less likely to say “Do you have any happenings?” to mean ‘…news of happenings’.

So. Tidings means ‘news’ now, except that to mean ‘news’ we usually use news, which is a plural of new and means, you know, ‘new things’. (No, it does not come from North East West South.) So for us now, tidings means ‘news, but momentous, old-style, and celebratory’. There’s a wine magazine that used to be called Wine Tidings (now it’s Quench); there are magazines of other associations, societies, or organizations, generally (it seems) with a Christian bent, with Tidings in their name.

Hey, words are known by the company they keep. And tidings keeps company with Christmas narratives. And with glad and joy and comfort. And, contextually, with all the comfort and joy of the holiday season (and/or with all the other stuff that comes with it, as the case may be for you). Which may include lots of, ah, “cheer.” Tides of it. And the kind of merry-making and singing consequent. And similar happenings.