The Joyce Hill Column

December 2019

When did we start calling it Christmas?

As far as the pre-Reformation church was concerned, the official name for the feast-day celebrating Christ’s birth was, of course, in Latin: it was Nativitas Domini, the Nativity of the Lord. In Anglo-Saxon England clergy would translate this in sermons, for the benefit of ordinary folk, as drihtnes gebyrdtid, literally ‘the lord’s birthday’. But cristes mæsse, which is the origin of our ‘Christmas’, is found in surviving records from about 1000. By the end of that century we see it being used even in secular contexts as a completely unexceptional marker of time, just as we do today (‘before Christmas’, ‘after Christmas’), so this suggests that cristes-mæsse had been in common use in everyday speech for quite a while, although this is masked by the fact that we have to rely on surviving written records and in this case, written records in English rather than in Latin, which was the commonest language of record and of course the dominant language for anything to do with the church.


The elements of the word — ‘Christ’ and ‘mass’ — were borrowed into Anglo-Saxon from ecclesiastical Latin, although Christ, meaning ‘the anointed one’, was a ultimately a Greek word borrowed into Latin before it became part of English vocabulary. In the earliest written occurrences it is clear that they were seen as two distinct words: cristes mæsse (even though they were sometimes run together when written). We can tell this because the first word (cristes) has an ending which indicates its grammatical relationship to mæsse. So cristes mæsse was literally ‘Christ’s mass’, or ‘the mass of Christ’. But the two words soon fused completely, and the –es was lost, giving the new single word cristmæsse or Christmas.


Why did this happen? The surviving documents show that in the Anglo-Saxon period ordinary people gave their own English names to those feast-days or seasons of the church that they particularly enjoyed or that made a noteworthy mark on their lives year by year. This was not usually a straight translation of the official Latin name for the feast-day/season. We might guess that the very human story of the Nativity was something they could identify with. Perhaps too, in an agricultural society, which often struggled to get through the hardships of winter, the fact that this feast-day fell just after the winter equinox meant that it was a moment when one could dare to look forward to the lengthening of the days and the pleasures of spring, now not so far away. It was certainly true, as Bede tells us in the early eighth century, that the Nativity of the Lord was one of those festivals that drew people to church, even if they were normally rather lax attenders. So what’s new, we may well ask? It’s this participation and enjoyment that made them give the name of ‘Christ’s mass’ to the feast-day on 25 December, when they celebrated Jesus’ birth. A purist would say that all masses were ‘Christ’s mass’. But that’s not the point: this one was special.


Yule is another name the Anglo-Saxons sometimes use for Christmas, although it’s rare it the written record, whatever might have been the case in daily life. We don’t actually know the origin of the word, but the use of ‘Yule’ for the Christian feast of the Nativity parallels what happened with jól in Scandinavia, which moved from designating a pagan mid-winter festival to the mid-winter feast celebrating the birth of Christ, the coming of the Light of the World.

Joyce Hill


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