Irish Language Blog

Daidí nó Athair (na Nollag) Posted by on Dec 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

We recently addressed the “happy” vs. “merry” distinction for Christmas greetings, discussing the use of “sona” (or shona), faoi shéan and faoi mhaise, as well as non-Christmas terms translated as “happy,” like dea-, or which may function like “happy” lie “beannachtaí” (lit. blessing).  Some day we’ll deal with a slew of other “happy” words, like áthasach and lúchaireach and gliondrach, ach i ndiaidh na Nollag!

Now let’s look at another pair of seasonal words, Daidí na Nollag and Athair na Nollag.  And for good measure, San Nioclás.  But first let’s talk about the word Santa Claus itself, and why neither of the typical Irish equivalents are actually based on that phrase.  As an English word, “Santa Claus” is most closely related to the Dutch “Sinterklaas” (St. Nicholas, referring to Nicholas of Myra, 280-342/345 AD),   So “Santa Claus” joins a small but noticeable group of American English words of Dutch origin, like “cookie” (koekje) and “stoop” (stoep, as a door step).

Irish has its own way of saying St. Nicholas (San Nioclás) but this is not nearly as typical as saying “Daidí na Nollag” or “Athair na Nollag,” when discussing Christmas customs.  There’s no particular reason why Irish would have borrowed their word for this folk/religious figure from the Dutch, whereas, in America, it was New Amsterdam, Haarlem, the “bouwerij,” and all that.

The American term “Santa Claus” (or “Santy”)  has become quite well known in Ireland, and it may be displacing “Father Christmas” in England, ach sin scéal eile.

So getting back to “Daidí” and “Athair,” let’s look at some figures for their usage.  I Googled “Daidí na Nollag” and initially got an amazing 185,000 hits, which Google then narrowed down to a practical 375 (eliminating some duplicates, etc.).  I also checked “Deaide na Nollag,” since “Deaide” is another way to say “Daddy.”  That brought in another 32 hits, which were then narrowed down to 14.

Searching for “Athair na Nollag,” I initially got 800 hits, which Google then narrowed down to 56.  That gives us about eight times as much usage of “Daidí” as “Athair” for this purpose.

We seem to have a trend here, as far as Irish Gaelic usage can be determined from Internet searches.  As I’ve said before, this type of searching and comparing is not “bun agus barr an scéil,” but it confirms the trend I thought I’d find — more use of “Daidí na Nollag” than “Athair na Nollag,” at least in contemporary terms.

What do we see for “Santa Claus” in Irish language children’s literature or Christmas products?  Well, there’s not a whole lot to look at, actually printed in Irish, but I take some cues from Cáit Ní Dhuibhir’s charming oversized picture book, Daidí na Nollag. The title mostly says it all – “Daidí,” not “Athair.”  Inside, we see a picture of the main child character, Liam, reading a book called “San Nioclás.”  But when Liam speaks to Santa, it’s “a Dhaidí na Nollag.”  The book suggests that children think of “Daidí na Nollag” but might read about the historic figure as “San Nioclás,” a fair enough assessment of the situation.

I’m sure one could do a much more intensive survey of these usage issues and what they reflect (folklore, religious tradition, linguistic borrowing, and the spread of the American image of the plump, betrousered Santa Claus, as popularized first by cartoonist Thomas Nast and then by Coca-Cola ads).  But this brief discussion should serve our purposes.  So, in summary, I’d suggest:

Daidí na Nollag, for most purposes

Athair na Nollag, slightly more formal

San Nioclás, for historical or biographical discussion

As far as I can tell, there isn’t really a tradition in Irish of incorporating the term “San Nioclás” into popular Christmas, umm, jingles, as English has done with “St. Nick,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” etc.  So using “San Nioclás” does seem to be primarily in more of a documentary context, or in the naming of schools and churches..

Finally, I picked a sample basic sentence to search for, just to check for the phrase “Santa Claus” itself being used in an Irish language context.  Grand total?  Three hits, duplicating each other, for “Tá Santa Claus ag teacht,” about what I expected.  Given the pervasiveness of the American Santa image, I’m not at all surprised to see this.  But, certainly, “Daidí na Nollag” as a phrase seems to be holding its own.

And if you noticed that the word for Christmas in these phrases has changed slightly, you were right on.  “Nollaig” becomes ”Nollag” (with no “i”) for the possessive form.  Another special feature of the word “Nollaig” is that it often takes the definite article “an,” as in “an Nollaig” (lit. the Christmas).  This “an” changes to “na” when we’re showing possession (Daidí na Nollag, Athair na Nollag, mí na Nollag).  When the word “na” is dropped, the term is more general, like “cárta Nollag” (a Christmas card) or “carúl Nollag” (a Christmas carol).

So that’s the skinny on our plump jolly Santa and the lanky Father Christmas, who’s traditionally depicted as tall and thin and dressed in vestments like a bishop’s.  Any contributions from na hÉireannaigh ar an liosta seo regarding how you have used our Christmas terms, as Gaeilge, as a child would be welcome.  Or, for that matter, how you’re using them today!

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  1. Frank Uccellini:

    Watching “Nuacht” on RTÉ tonight (22 Dec 2010) there was a report on the record snowfalls in Ireland (in general), with the reporter interviewing folks in Donegal. And one of the folks she interviewed, a rather jolly-looking fellow with a flowing white beard, red trousers and coat trimmed with white and a floppy brim-less cap to match had his name given as Daidí na Nollag. So I guess that’s the RTÉ standard. Nollaig shona duit.

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