December 25, 2008

#01-201: Merry Christmas!

old lithograph of "Merry Christmas" with acorns, vines, flowers, etc., but all in black and white
Merry Christmas!

Note: The Nativity, Noel, Yule--English has several words for the holiday we usually call Christmas. Learn the background of these words, and how to say "Merry Christmas" in several languages.

Get Ready: What phrase or phrases do you use to greet others at holiday time in December?

Happy Christmas! Merry Xmas! Joyeux Noel! Feliz Navidad! God Jul! Frohliche Weihnachten!

However you say it, people in many countries are greeting each other in a special way today, because today is Christmas.

There are several words used for Christmas in English: Christmas (or Xmas), Noel, the Nativity, and Yule. Let's look at where they came from, and who their "cousins" are.

"Christmas" itself is made of "Christ," whose birthday Christians celebrate on this day, and "mass," a church ceremony used for the celebration. Closely related are Dutch Kerstmis and Russian Kristmas. (By the way, most scholars agree that Christ was not born on this day, if they believe he was born at all; this date was probably chosen because it was near the date of the winter solstice, a major holiday for the Romans.)

Some feel that the word "Xmas" is disrespectful; they say it "takes the 'Christ' out of Christmas." Some even think it was invented by advertisers to save space! But in fact, this is an old abbreviation. The sound we write as Ch is written as an X in Greek; the name "Christ" was written something like Xristos. So X has long been an acceptable abbreviation for "Christ."

Two other "Christmas"-based words in English are Christmastide, which means the "Twelve Days of Christmas" mentioned in the popular song (December 25 to January 5); and Christmastime, a more general term for the holiday season.

Another common English word for Christmas is "Noel." This comes from the Latin natalis meaning "birth," via the French Noel. So French people say "Joyeaux Noel": Joyous Christmas!

Also based on natalis is the English term "the Nativity," meaning "the birth (and usually referring to Christ)." This is related to other "birth" words, like "native," "natural," and "innate." Spanish Navidad, Italian Natale, and Portuguese Natal are all related.

Our final common English word for Christmas is "Yule." This comes from a pre-Christian Germanic holiday called Jol. This name, in turn, may have come from hjol, meaning "wheel," as the solstice marked another turning of the wheel of the year (learn more about the Great Wheel). You might say "Good Yule," as the Swedes still say "God Jul."

One greeting above remains unexplained: "Frohliche Weihnachten." This is German. Frohliche is a word for "happy" (think of the English word "frolic"). Weihnachten means "hallowed (or holy) night," because the gift exchange, going to church, etc., in Germany--as in many places--is done on Christmas Eve.

I wish I had space to discuss the other important holidays celebrated around this time, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But to everyone, no matter your tradition: Happy Holidays!


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. abbreviation
  2. disrespectful
  3. frolic
  4. innate
  5. Latin
  6. merry
  7. pre-Christian
  8. scholars
  9. unexplained
  10. winter solstice

  1. the language spoken by the Romans, and still important in the Catholic Church
  2. a shortening of a word
  3. rude; not showing honor to someone or something
  4. around December 21 in the northern hemisphere
  5. existing in someone (or something) from birth
  6. play; fun
  7. not made plain or clear
  8. another word for "happy"
  9. people who study things
  10. from before the arrival of the Church

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 25, 2008

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. c; 3. f; 4. e; 5. a; 6. h; 7. j; 8. i; 9. g; 10. d