Word of the Day: Christmas

Word of the Day: Christmas December 26, 2013

Word of the Day: Christmas

I am quite fond of our English word for the birth of the Lord, Christmas. It’s one of a host of old mass-words which provide abundant evidence that our English forefathers measured their seasons by the liturgical year. There’s Christmas, but also Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple, on February 2, the fortieth day after His birth. There’s Lammas, the feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6 (the name comes from the title Lamb of God); Michaelmas, the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, on September 29; and Martinmas or Martlemas, the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, on November 11. Martin was a Roman soldier who gave up his life in the army and became a monk and, eventually, the Bishop of Tours. His feast was chosen by the combatants at the end of World War I as most appropriate for the armistice that was supposed to end all wars.

Most of the European languages have words that refer specifically to the birth, from the Latin adjective natalis: Italian Natale, French Noel, Welsh Nadolig; or from the Latin noun nativitas: Spanish Navidad. German, though, has Weihnachten, literally Sacred Night (weihen, to consecrate); the emphasis is upon the birth of Him who would sacrifice Himself for us. The Scandinavian countries have variants upon what we know as Yule: Swedish Jul. That was an old pagan feast, taken over by the Christians when they converted the Germans in the northlands. That Scandinavian word made its way across the North Sea and the English Channel into France – recall, Normandy: the peninsula where the North-men live, that is, the Vikings. There the word took root as French jolif, mirth (fit for Yuletide); and entered English as jolly, which had an odd history of its own, sometimes having more to do with lusty youth than with an old elf with a round belly.
Yes, our ancestors reckoned their time by the Savior, and the saints, and the stars. We, by digits turning on a dial, without meaning. God bless our ancestors, wiser than we!

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