Christmas etymologies

A selection from

Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912)

by

Clement A. Miles


The names given to the feast by different European peoples throw a certain amount of light on its history. Let us take five of them—ChristmasWeihnachtNoëlCalendas, and Yule—and see what they suggest.

I. The English Christmas and its Dutch equivalent Kerstmisse, plainly point to the ecclesiastical side of the festival; the German Weihnacht (sacred night) is vaguer, and might well be either pagan or Christian; in point of fact it seems to be Christian, since it does not appear till the year 1000, when the Faith was well established in Germany. Christmas and Weihnacht, then, may stand for the distinctively Christian festival, the history of which we may now briefly study.

When and where did the keeping of Christmas begin? Many details of its early history remain in uncertainty, but it is fairly clear that the earliest celebration of the Birth of Christ on December 25 took place at Rome about the middle of the fourth century, and that the observance of the day spread from the western to the eastern Church, which had before been wont to keep January 6 as a joint commemoration of the Nativity and the Baptism of the Redeemer.

The first mention of a Nativity feast on December 25 is found in a Roman document known as the Philocalian Calendar, dating from the year 354, but embodying an older document evidently belonging to the year 336. It is uncertain to which date the Nativity reference belongs; but further back than 336 at all events the festival cannot be traced.

From Rome, Christmas spread throughout the West, with the conversion of the barbarians. Whether it came to England through the Celtic Church is uncertain, but St. Augustine certainly brought it with him, and Christmas Day, 598, witnessed a great event, the baptism of more than ten thousand English converts. In 567 the Council of Tours had declared the Twelve Days, from Christmas to Epiphany, a festal tide; the laws of Ethelred (991-1016) ordained it to be a time of peace and concord among Christian men, when all strife must cease. In Germany Christmas was established by the Synod of Mainz in 813; in Norway by King Hakon the Good about the middle of the tenth century.

In the East, as has been seen, the Birth of the Redeemer was at first celebrated not on December 25, but on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany or manifestation of Christ’s glory. The Epiphany can be traced as far back as the second century, among the Basilidian heretics, from whom it may have spread to the Catholic Church. It was with them certainly a feast of the Baptism, and possibly also of the Nativity, of Christ. The origins of the Epiphany festival are very obscure, nor can we say with certainty what was its meaning at first. It may be that it took the place of a heathen rite celebrating the birth of the World or Æon from the Virgin on January 6. At all events one of its objects was to commemorate the Baptism, the appearance of the Holy Dove, and the Voice from heaven, “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (or, as other MSS. read, “This day have I begotten thee”).

In some circles of early Christianity the Baptism appears to have been looked upon as the true Birth of Christ, the moment when, filled by the Spirit, He became Son of God; and the carnal Birth was regarded as of comparatively little significance. Hence the Baptism festival may have arisen first, and the celebration of the Birth at Bethlehem may have been later attached to the same day, partly perhaps because a passage in St. Luke’s Gospel was supposed to imply that Jesus was baptized on His thirtieth birthday. As however the orthodox belief became more sharply defined, increasing stress was laid on the Incarnation of God in Christ in the Virgin’s womb, and it may have been felt that the celebration of the Birth and the Baptism on the same day encouraged heretical views. Hence very likely the introduction of Christmas on December 25 as a festival of the Birth alone. In the East the concelebration of the two events continued for some time after Rome had instituted the separate feast of Christmas. Gradually, however, the Roman use spread: at Constantinople it was introduced about 380 by the great theologian, Gregory Nazianzen; at Antioch it appeared in 388, at Alexandria in 432. The Church of Jerusalem long stood out, refusing to adopt the new feast till the seventh century, it would seem. One important Church, the Armenian, knows nothing of December 25, and still celebrates the Nativity with the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany in the eastern Orthodox Church has lost its connection with the Nativity and is now chiefly a celebration of the Baptism of Christ, while in the West, as every one knows, it is primarily a celebration of the Adoration by the Magi, an event commemorated by the Greeks on Christmas Day. Epiphany is, however, as we shall see, a greater festival in the Greek Church than Christmas.

Such in bare outline is the story of the spread of Christmas as an independent festival. Its establishment fitly followed the triumph of the Catholic doctrine of the perfect Godhead or Christ at the Council of Nicea in 325.

II. The French Noël is a name concerning whose origin there has been considerable dispute; there can, however, be little doubt that it is the same word as the Provençal Nadau or Nadal23the Italian Natale, and the Welsh Nadolig, all obviously derived from the Latin natalis, and meaning “birthday.” One naturally takes this as referring to the Birth of Christ, but it may at any rate remind us of another birthday celebrated on the same date by the Romans of the Empire, that of the unconquered Sun, who on December 25, the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, began to rise to new vigour after his autumnal decline.

Why, we may ask, did the Church choose December 25 for the celebration of her Founder’s Birth? No one now imagines that the date is supported by a reliable tradition; it is only one of various guesses of early Christian writers. As a learned eighteenth-century Jesuit has pointed out, there is not a single month in the year to which the Nativity has not been assigned by some writer or other. The real reason for the choice of the day most probably was, that upon it fell the pagan festival just mentioned.

The Dies Natalis Invicti was probably first celebrated in Rome by order of the Emperor Aurelian (270-5), an ardent worshipper of the Syrian sun-god Baal. With the Sol Invictus was identified the figure of Mithra, that strange eastern god whose cult resembled in so many ways the worship of Jesus, and who was at one time a serious rival of the Christ in the minds of thoughtful men. It was the sun-god, poetically and philosophically conceived, whom the Emperor Julian made the centre of his ill-fated revival of paganism, and there is extant a fine prayer of his to “King Sun.”

What more natural than that the Church should choose this day to celebrate the rising of her Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings, that she should strive thus to draw away to His worship some adorers of the god whose symbol and representative was the earthly sun! There is no direct evidence of deliberate substitution, but at all events ecclesiastical writers soon after the foundation of Christmas made good use of the idea that the birthday of the Saviour had replaced the birthday of the sun.

Little is known of the manner in which the Natalis Invicti was kept; it was not a folk-festival, and was probably observed by the classes rather than the masses. Its direct influence on Christmas customs has probably been little or nothing. It fell, however, just before a Roman festival that had immense popularity, is of great importance for our subject, and is recalled by another name for Christmas that must now be considered.

III. The Provençal Calendas or Calenos, the Polish Kolenda, the Russian Kolyáda, the Czech Koleda and the Lithuanian Kalledos, not to speak of the Welsh Calenig for Christmas-box, and the Gaelic Calluinn for New Year’s Eve, are all derived from the Latin Kalendae, and suggest the connection of Christmas with the Roman New Year’s Day, the Kalends or the first day of January, a time celebrated with many festive customs. What these were, and how they have affected Christmas we shall see in some detail in Part II.; suffice it to say here that the festival, which lasted for at least three days, was one of riotous life, of banqueting and games and licence. It was preceded, moreover, by the Saturnalia (December 17 to 23) which had many like features, and must have formed practically one festive season with it. The word Saturnalia has become so familiar in modern usage as to suggest sufficiently the character of the festival for which it stands.

Into the midst of this season of revelry and licence the Church introduced her celebration of the beginning of man’s redemption from the bondage of sin. Who can wonder that Christmas contains incongruous elements, for old things, loved by the people, cannot easily be uprooted.

IV. One more name yet remains to be considered, Yule (Danish Jul), the ordinary word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages, and not extinct among ourselves. Its derivation has been widely discussed, but so far no satisfactory explanation of it has been found. Professor Skeat in the last edition of his Etymological Dictionary (1910) has to admit that its origin is unknown. Whatever its source may be, it is clearly the name of a Germanic season—probably a two-month tide covering the second half of November, the whole of December, and the first half of January. It may well suggest to us the element added to Christmas by the barbarian peoples who began to learn Christianity about the time when the festival was founded. Modern research has tended to disprove the idea that the old Germans held a Yule feast at the winter solstice, and it is probable, as we shall see, that the specifically Teutonic Christmas customs come from a New Year and beginning-of-winter festival kept about the middle of November. These customs transferred to Christmas are to a great extent religious or magical rites intended to secure prosperity during the coming year, and there is also the familiar Christmas feasting, apparently derived in part from the sacrificial banquets that marked the beginning of winter.

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