Holidays of the Season

This Monday is Christmas, the biggest, albeit not the most theologically important, Christian holiday. As I’m sure you know, Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Tradition gives this date as 25 December, although no one knows what day he was actually born. The December date is believed to have been selected because it corresponds with a variety of pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice, most notably the Roman festival of Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn. Co-opting the traditions and festivals of other faiths is a time-honored religious practice.

The word Christmas literally means Christ’s mass. The modern form comes from the Old English Cristes mæsse, which is first recorded sometime before 1123 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1101:

Her on thisum geare to Xpes. mæssan heold se cyng Heanrig his hired on Westmynstre. (In this year at Christmas held the King Henry his court in Westminster.)

Many object to the abbreviation Xmas, meaning Christmas, because it “takes the Christ out of Christmas.” But this is actually not the case. The X is not a generic substitution of a letter for the name of Christ, but rather it is the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in the Greek spelling of Christ. As we can see in the above quotation from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this use of Chi as an abbreviation for Christ dates back to the Old English period and is not part of the modern commercialization of the holiday. Here is another example from one of John Wyclif’s sermons c.1380:

In this word Vix ben but three lettris, V, and I, and X. And V bitokeneth fyve; I bitokeneth Jesus; and X bitokeneth Crist.

The abbreviation Xmas itself dates to the mid-16th century. A 1551 example found in Edmund Lodge’s 1791 Illustrations of British History:

From X’temmas next following.

And we have this one in the modern form from c.1755 found in Bernard Ward’s 1893 History of St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall:

In ye Xmas and Whitsuntide Vacations.

We often see the word yule used to represent the winter holidays. Yule comes from an Old English name, geól, the name of the months we call December and January. Bede, writing in De Temporum Ratione in 726 attests to the word in this sense. Bede wrote in Latin, but this text is the only extant documentation of the Anglo-Saxon calendar and does attest to the word’s existence:

De Mensibus Anglorum…Primusque eorum mensis, quem Latini Januarium vocant, dicitur Giuli. (About the English months…The first month, which in Latin is called Januarium, is Yule.)

The use of yule to refer to Christmas dates to sometime before the year 900 when the word is used in this sense in the Old English Martyrology:

Feowertig daga ær Criste acennisse, Thæt is ær geolum. (Forty days before Christ’s birth, that is before yule.)

In Britain, the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. Traditionally on this day the upper classes would give boxes of gifts to servants and trades people. The name either comes from this practice or from the practice of churches to open the alms boxes on this day and distribute money to the poor. The term Boxing Day dates to at least 1833 when it appears in The Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian:

To the completion of his dismay, he arrives in London on boxing-day.

There are other explanations for the name giving various medieval practices as the source. But given that the term only dates to the 19th century, these would seem to be unlikely origins.

Of course Christianity is not the only religion to have a holiday during this season. The Jews celebrate Chanukah, also spelled Chanukkah and Hanukkah. The name is the Hebrew word for consecration and the festival celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after the revolt against the Seleucids in 165 BCE. The celebration lasts for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which falls in November or December (or rarely in January) on the European calendar.

Many African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, a secular holiday that emphasizes the people’s roots in
Africa. The name comes from the Swahili kwanza, meaning first, as in the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits of the harvest. The extra A was added to round out the word to seven letters, which represent seven principles, unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The celebration was started in 1966 by Ron Karenga, an African-American writer and political activist.

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