Twas the night before Xmas…
Well, to be precise, it was the night before Christmas, but, it appears Christmas is not the only word that encompasses the meaning of baby Jesus’ birth and the celebration of this day every year. There seem to be a couple more words that describe it and, below, we will try to unveil the story behind each and how they ended up being used in the English language, more or less often.
As I hinted above, one of the words in question is Xmas or X-mas. What could it stand for and how did it become so common in everyday language?
Well, first things first. Let’s talk about the meaning of the word Christmas. It is a blend of the words Christ and mas (Old English version of mass deriving from Latin). Now, as you might guess, X substitutes Christ, but what is the relation between the two? Is it all Greek to you? It makes sense because X comes from the Greek alphabet and it is the initial letter of the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός). Apparently, in the past, the letter X served as a secret symbol to indicate membership in the Christian church. The abbreviation is said to have been first used in 1021 AD, by an Anglo-Saxon scribe to save space, since parchment paper was expensive at the time and scribes sought ways to save space. It is pronounced /ˈɛksməs/ and it can also be found as Xtemass.
Nowadays, this abbreviation is very widely used, especially by commercials and among young people. However, some authorities have considered it offensive to Christianity throughout the years, possibly because it hints to the variable “x”, meaning “an unknown person or quantity”. Moreover, the clergy has not necessarily welcomed this spelling. In at least two cases, they have stood against the use of the Xmas spelling. First, the former Church of England Bishop of Blackburn, Alan Chesters, recommended that the clergy avoid the Xmas spelling, while in the USA (1977), New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson, with a press release he sent out to journalists, strongly advised them to use the word Christ in Christmas, since, in his opinion, Xmas is a pagan alteration. Finally, many people associate it with marketing practices, advertisements, and therefore consumerism and materialism, which is why they avoid its use.
“Sleigh bells in the air
Yuletide by the fireside…” (MercyMe, Christmas time is here, 2005)
Yet another word for Christmas is Yuletide, dating back to the 15th century. It is a compound noun, made up by the words yule, deriving from the Old English noun geōl referring to a pagan festival that used to take place in December, and tide, from the Old English tīdan, meaning the ecclesiastical anniversary or festival. Yule is also associated with both the Norse mythology and Christianity since there is a similarity between the yule goat in the former and the one which “carried Father Christmas on his back and is a symbol of Christmas throughout Scandinavian countries”. Nowadays, for most Americans Yuletide is synonymous to singing carols, a northern European tradition.
“Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the king of Israel”…
sang Ella Fitzgerald in 1967.
Another one? Indeed, another word for Christmas. This time it comes from the French word for Christmas, which in turn derives from the Latin Natalis, meaning birthday. The English borrowed it and it first appears in English texts in the 15th century.
So far we’ve seen terms that can be used instead of Christmas, but this celebration is more than just another festive day! People from all over the world spend entire days decorating their homes, preparing for THE day and what it brings with it. The most important being, of course, Santa Claus! Who, by the way, has a history of his own…
Saint Nicholas, as his original name is, was a monk, born in Turkey circa 280 AD. He was believed to be very kind and generous, as he gave away all of his inherited wealth and spent the rest of his years travelling the countryside and helping poor and sick people. As time went by, he became all the more popular and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. In the centuries that followed, people in Europe used to celebrate the anniversary of his death, December 6, and, eventually, brought the festivities to their colonies, such as New York, formerly known as New Amsterdam. In 1773 the Dutch living there gathered to honour the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ or, as he is known in the Netherlands, Sinter Klaas, death. As it is obvious, Sinter Klaas easily turned into Santa Claus and the patron saint of New York, as mentioned in the 1809 Washington Irving’s book “The History of New York”. Not much later, in 1820, stores started advertising Christmas decorations and after that, as one might imagine, there was no turning back! Till the present day, Santa Claus stories and shopping mall Santas are a must around the holiday season.
Last, but not least, what would a celebration be without its signature drink? For Christmas that is eggnog, this weird yet world-famous concoction containing alcohol and eggs. Where does it come from though, and what could the “nog” be?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, nog was “a kind of strong beer brewed in East Anglia”, and the term dates back to 1693. According to other sources, however, nog might stem from “noggin”, a Middle English word describing a special mug used to serve alcohol. Originally popular among the aristocracy, who could afford the ingredients, it became associated with the holidays in the 18th century, when the Americans started consuming it.
Well, Christmas or Xmas, Xtemas or Yuletide, it has long been and will be one of children’s and adults’ favourite celebrations and, whether it is Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus the one who bears our presents is of little importance.
There will always be a glass of eggnog by the fireplace waiting for him on Christmas night!