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The Word "Christmas": Its Orthography and Meaning


"Christmas" (pronounced Kris'mas) signifies "Christ's Mass," meaning the festival of the Nativity of Christ, and the word has been variously spelt at different periods. The following are obsolete forms of it found in old English writings: Crystmasse, Cristmes, Cristmas, Crestenmes, Crestenmas, Cristemes, Cristynmes, Crismas, Kyrsomas, Xtemas, Cristesmesse, Cristemasse, Crystenmas, Crystynmas, Chrystmas, Chrystemes, Chrystemasse, Chrystymesse, Cristenmas, Christenmas, Christmass, Christmes. Christmas has also been called No�l or Nowel. As to the derivation of the word No�l, some say it is a contraction of the French nouvelles (tidings), les bonnes nouvelles, that is "The good news of the Gospel"; others take it as an abbreviation of the Gascon or Proven�al nada�, nadal, which means the same as the Latin natalis, that is, dies natalis, "the birthday." In "The Franklin's Tale," Chaucer alludes to "Nowel" as a festive cry at Christmastide: "And 'Nowel' crieth every lusty man." Some say No�l is a corruption of Yule, Jule, or Ule, meaning "The festival of the sun." The name Yule is still applied to the festival in Scotland, and some other places. Christmas is represented in Welsh by Nadolig, which signifies "the natal, or birth"; in French by No�l; and in Italian by Il Natale, which, together with its cognate term in Spanish, is simply a contraction of dies natalis, "the birthday."


Fixing the Date of Christmas

Whether the 25th of December, which is now observed as Christmas Day, correctly fixes the period of the year when Christ was born is still doubtful, although it is a question upon which there has been much controversy. From Clement of Alexandria it appears, that when the first efforts were made to fix the season of the Advent, there were advocates for the 20th of May, and for the 20th or 21st of April. It is also found that some communities of Christians celebrated the festival on the 1st or 6th of January; others on the 29th of March, the time of the Jewish Passover: while others observed it on the 29th of September, or Feast of Tabernacles. The Oriental Christians generally were of opinion that both the birth and baptism of Christ took place on the 6th of January. Julius I., Bishop of Rome (A.D. 337-352), contended that the 25th of December was the date of Christ's birth, a view to which the majority of the Eastern Church ultimately came round, while the Church of the West adopted from their brethren in the East the view that the baptism was on the 6th of January. It is, at any rate, certain that after St. Chrysostom Christmas was observed on the 25th of December in East and West alike, except in the Armenian Church, which still remains faithful to January 6th. St. Chrysostom, who died in the beginning of the fifth century, informs us, in one of his Epistles, that Julius, on the solicitation of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, caused strict inquiries to be made on the subject, and thereafter, following what seemed to be the best authenticated tradition, settled authoritatively the 25th of December as the anniversary of Christ's birth, the Festorum omnium metropolis, as it is styled by Chrysostom. It may be observed, however, that some have represented this fixing of the day to have been accomplished by St. Telesphorus, who was Bishop of Rome A.D. 127-139, but the authority for the assertion is very doubtful. There is good ground for maintaining that Easter and its accessory celebrations mark with tolerable accuracy the anniversaries of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, because we know that the events themselves took place at the period of the Jewish Passover; but no such precision of date can be adduced as regards Christmas. Dr. Geikie says: "The season at which Christ was born is inferred from the fact that He was six months younger than John, respecting the date of whose birth we have the help of knowing the time of the annunciation during his father's ministrations in Jerusalem. Still, the whole subject is very uncertain. Ewald appears to fix the date of the birth as five years earlier than our era. Petavius and Usher fix it as on the 25th of December, five years before our era; Bengel, on the 25th of December, four years before our era; Anger and Winer, four years before our era, in the spring; Scaliger, three years before our era, in October; St. Jerome, three years before our era, on December 25th; Eusebius, two years before our era, on January 6th; and Ideler, seven years before our era, in December." Milton, following the immemorial tradition of the Church, says that- "It was the winter wild."

Christmas

But there are still many who think that the 25th of December does not correspond with the actual date of the birth of Christ, and regard the incident of the flocks and shepherds in the open field, recorded by St. Luke, as indicative of spring rather than winter. This incident, it is thought, could not have taken place in the inclement month of December, and it has been conjectured, with some probability, that the 25th of December was chosen in order to substitute the purified joy of a Christian festival for the license of the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia which were kept at that season. It is most probable that the Advent took place between December and February.

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Dionysius Exiguus, surnamed the Little, a Romish monk of the sixth century, a Scythian by birth, and who died a.d. 556, fixed the birth of Christ in the year of Rome 753, but the best authorities are now agreed that 753 was not the year in which the Saviour of mankind was born. The Nativity is now placed, not as might have been expected, in a.d. 1, but in b.c. 5 or 4. The mode of reckoning by the "year of our Lord" was first introduced by Dionysius, in his "Cyclus Paschalis," a treatise on the computation of Easter, in the first half of the sixth century. Up to that time the received computation of events through the western portion of Christendom had been from the supposed foundation of Rome (b.c. 754), and events were marked accordingly as happening in this or that year, Anno Urbis Condit�, or by the initial letters A.U.C. In the East some historians continued to reckon from the era of Seleucid�, which dated from the accession of Seleucus Nicator to the monarchy of Syria, in b.c. 312. The new computation was received by Christendom in the sixth century, and adopted without adequate inquiry, till the sixteenth century. A more careful examination of the data presented by the Gospel history, and, in particular, by the fact that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Jud�a" before the death of Herod, showed that Dionysius had made a mistake of four years, or perhaps more, in his calculations. The death of Herod took place in the year of Rome a.u.c. 750, just before the Passover. This year coincided with what in our common chronology would be b.c. 4-so that we have to recognise the fact that our own reckoning is erroneous, and to fix b.c. 5 or 4 as the date of the Nativity.


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