Come the end of November, you’re bound to hear the phrase tis the season over and over and see it written practically everywhere. But what does it mean? And where does it come from? Read on to find out.
How is “Tis the Season” typically used?
Let’s start by identifying the season to which this expression refers. Did you catch the clue in the introduction above? The season in this popular phrase is the time period known as the holiday season, which generally stretches from Thanksgiving in late November to Christmas at the end of December. Most often, people use the expression to refer to the time around the Christmas holiday in particular, although when using the phrase they may also be including and referencing other holidays that occur around the end of the year, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and even New Year’s. Simply put, the expression usually means that it’s the time of year around the Christmas holiday.
Don’t let the word ‘tis or tis trip you up—in terms of pronunciation, in this instance, the s sounds like a z. While the word may be unfamiliar to you, it has a very simple meaning: it is. In fact, tis is a contraction of it is, albeit an old or archaic one we no longer typically use in the English language outside of this expression, or other rare occasions harkening back to an older time.
A contraction is simply a shortened form of a word or a pair or group of words. In shortening the words, certain letters or sounds are omitted. In the case of it is being contracted to tis, one i has been omitted. Often, an apostrophe is used to represent the missing letter or letters. Tis can be written with or without an apostrophe, as tis or ‘tis. It’s most often used without an apostrophe in informal settings, like online, where punctuation is used less rigidly as a general rule. Other examples of contractions include it’s—which has replaced tis as a contraction for it is in modern English; I’ve (I have); we’ve (we have); and they’re (they are). Of course, there are many more.
Twas is another antiquated or obsolete contraction often heard around the same time of year, particularly when someone is quoting the first line of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. As you likely know, this holiday poem begins: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house.” Can you guess the words from which twas is formed? You got it: it was. As is the case with tis, one i has been omitted. Twas can also be written as ‘twas, with or without an apostrophe.
Typically, the phrase tis the season is used to discuss activities associated with Christmastime, and to imply that it’s a great time to participate in those events. For example, roasting chestnuts over an open fire, singing Christmas carols and Christmas songs, getting pictures taken with Santa Claus, playing in the snow, watching Christmas movies, eating lots of delicious food––the list goes on and on. Here is some example dialogue using the phrase tis the season:
“What should we do this weekend, Cary?”
“I was thinking we should volunteer at a homeless shelter.”
“That sounds like a great idea! Tis the season of giving, after all.”
“Let’s go get something to drink; what do you say, Jess?”
“How about some eggnog or peppermint hot chocolate?”
“Of course! Tis the season!”
It’s worth noting that no particular holidays are mentioned in the expression. In theory, it can be used to refer to any season––meaning, someone might use the phrase to talk about another specific time of year. For example, they might say, “Tis the season for ice cream” when talking about summer. Or they might say, “Tis the season for allergies” in reference to the spring. However, most often the expression is used to refer to the Christmas season.
The Origins of the Phrase Tis the Season
The expression tis the season was taken from a longer phrase from the old Christmas carol Deck the Halls. Originally a Welsh New Year’s carol dating to the 16th century, called Nos Galan, the English lyrics we sing today were written in 1862 by Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics using the phrase tis the season:
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la la la la la!
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la!
Because the carol was taken from an earlier time, it makes sense the lyrics would have used tis, which dates to as early as the 15th century. Indeed, writers used tis in their work long before Oliphant did. Shakespeare certainly used tis in his plays, which he wrote in the late 1500s and early 1600s. One example from the early 1800s comes from a New Year’s piece in Gentleman’s Magazine:
Hurrah! hurrah! ‘Tis the season of mirth,
The time of goodwill and peace on Earth.
Mark Twain also used ‘tis in his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which although written in 1876 was set in the 1840s. For example, he includes the line, “There ‘tis again! Didn’t you hear it?” (Mark Twain may have also helped popularize the phrase chip on your shoulder.)
According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the usage of words in books written in English, tis reached its popularity around 1709 or 1710. Since we can see from the examples above that it was still in use in the late 1800s, it’s safe to assume it began falling out of favor steadily more and more after that time. Now, two centuries later, it remains in use almost solely thanks to the phrase tis the season, which seems to have been embraced in popular culture since the 1960s.
Tis the Season Today
Today, you’ll see tis the season a great deal in marketing and advertising campaigns leading up to Christmas. Of course, people often choose to sing Deck the Halls as a Christmas carol, whether they’re actually going door to door caroling or just belting out holiday tunes at home. Indeed, several contemporary musicians have Christmas albums titled ‘Tis the Season, including Wendy Moten, Jimmy Buffet, and Jordan Smith.
Now you know the meaning and origin of this phrase. Next time you hear someone say “Tis the season,” go ahead and wish them a Merry Christmas!
Want to know if you should capitalize the seasons in your writing? Find out here!
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