“Christmas” by any other name…

“Christmas” itself has a fairly straightforward etymology. People might have a fear that the religious meaning of the holiday will be overpowered by the gift-giving party, but it’s sort of hard to forget because “Christ” is so prominent in the word. The word comes from the religious event of the day: a mass celebrating Christ’s birth. “-mas” (as well as the standalone word “mass”) comes from Old English “mæsse”, which came from the Latin “missa” meaning “dismissal”, and referring to the Eucharistic service. “Missa” probably came from the concluding words of the service, where the prayer is sent out.

“Christmas” might highlight the religious origins of the holiday, but “Yule” shows that even pagan holiday traditions live on in our modern celebrations. Before Christmas was celebrated on December 25th, there were midwinter festivals celebrated at the same time. Yule was one of those festivals. And we still take some of the elements of that festival and incorporate them into our Christmas celebration. Like yule logs and Christmas trees. “Yule” comes from the Old English “Geol”, and similar words for the Christmas season can be found in neighboring languages like Scandinavians “Jul”.

In many languages, the main word for “Christmas” does not come from “Christ”, but from the particular event the holiday celebrates: the birth of Jesus. “Noel” is the word in English that follows this tradition. English gets “noel” from French, who got it from Latin “nael” or “natalis” meaning “birth”. Spanish takes it’s word for Christmas, “Navidad”, from that same Latin word.

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