Christmas or Xmas nowadays is almost a global word, recognised by nearly everybody. Immediately it conjures up connotations of the red, white and green colours of the season, pictures of Santa Claus, reindeers, trees, presents, and lots of food. That may be what Christmas means in modern times, but the history of the tradition is actually even longer than that. While many know that it is in essence a Christian holiday which marks the birth of Christ, the tradition of a mid-winter festival actually goes back even further than that, and perhaps even pre-dates Christianity. Just by taking a look at the word ‘Christmas’ itself, and its many alternative versions in different languages, it’s amazing what we can find out.
The English word ‘Christmas’ comes from a mixture of Greek and Latin. ‘Christ’ comes from the Greek ‘Χριστός’ (Christós) – a translation of the Hebrew ‘משיח’ (meshiakh) – and ‘mass’ from the Latin ‘missa’, which is the celebration of the Eucharist. ‘Christmas’ is actually one of the oldest surviving words in the English language. It first appeared as a single word ‘Cristesmaesse’ in the mid-14th Century, and has since kept its original short ‘i’ vowel sound in the modern version. The first recording of a name for the 24th December – ‘Cristenmesse Even’ – appears in about the year 1300.
However, ‘Christmas’ may not be the oldest word that English has for the celebration. The English language also uses the word ‘Yule’. This may be used less commonly these days, but the period is still often referred to as ‘Yuletide’. The word ‘Yule’ comes from the Old Norse word ‘jól’, which is the name for an ancient festival celebrated by the pagan Germanic peoples around the time of the winter solstice. Funnily enough, this is the word that is still used in Icelandic to mean Christmas, while the other Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) all use its derivative ‘jul’ as a name for the modern celebration. ‘Jól’ was also borrowed into Old French as ‘jolif’, and has re-entered modern-day English as the word ‘jolly’.
There is more evidence of the long, pre-Christian tradition of Christmas in Hungarian, where the festival is known as ‘karácsony’. This word is thought to have been borrowed from the languages of the Slavic peoples, who used to celebrate a pagan festival during the winter solstice, which they called ‘kračun’. While in most Slavic languages ‘kračun’ nowadays still refers just to the pagan festival, it is also used to mean Christmas in some Bulgarian and Macedonian dialects.
In the Germanic languages the word starts to move back towards its Christian connotations. The Dutch ‘Kerstfeest’ has two parts: ‘feest’ refers generally to a celebration, party or festival, and ‘kerst’ comes from the verb ‘kerstenen’, which means ‘to convert to Christianity’. At a first glance at the German, though, the word seems remarkably un-Christmassy. ‘Weihnachten’ has no mention of Christ, mass, or Christianity, but instead simply means ‘the night of Weihen’, which means ‘consecration’. This still makes a reference to the religious aspect of the Christmas tradition.
The Romance, Slavic and Greek languages all refer directly to the divine birth in their words for Christmas. Interestingly, these three language groups are also defined by their strong influence of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in their cultures. French ‘Noël’, Spanish ‘Navidad’, Italian ‘Natale’, Portuguese ‘Natal’, and Catalan ‘Nadal’ all come from a variety of Latin words meaning birth. The Greek ‘Χριστούγεννα’ (Christouyenna) also literally means ‘the birth of Christ’, and Russian ‘Рождество’ (Razhdestvo) also derives from the word for birth. One notable exception to this pattern, though, is Romanian, which like Hungarian celebrates something that is still called ‘Crăciun’.
Of course, looking at language in this way can have its limitations. It’s easy to draw simplistic conclusions or to exaggerate the importance of etymology, because ultimately what a word is used to mean today is far more important than how it was used in the past. But in this case what it can do is remind us that whatever it was called, gathering together in mid-Winter around the time of the shortest day of the year is one of the oldest traditions we have.
In 2012 Alex Rawlings was named Britain’s most multilingual student after being tested for fluency in 11 different languages. He now lives in Budapest where he is learning Hungarian, and works as a teacher of English, German, Russian and Greek. He is heavily involved in the online language learning community, and helps organise annual International Polyglot Conferences worldwide. He blogs at www.rawlangs.com, and tweets at @RawLangs_Blog.