Words on Holiday

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Michael Ferber

Editor’s note: Welcome to InDepthNH.org’s column Speaking of Words. Michael Ferber retired from the English Department at UNH, but has plenty more to say and write about words. We are thrilled he wants to do that for our readers. Welcome Michael! 

Speaking of Words

       There is an old story, too good to be true, about a debate in Parliament over the word “Christmas.” 

A Conservative back-bencher named Sir Thomas Massey-Massey rose to propose that the name of the holiday be changed to “Christtide.”

“It’s not a mass,” he said, “it’s a time or season, therefore a tide.  We should change its name to reflect that fact.”  At which an opposition back-bencher rose to say, “I would be happy to vote to change the name of Christmas to Christtide if Sir Thomas Massey-Massey changed his name to Sir Tomtide Tidy-Tidy.”

That ended the debate, though Sir Thomas could take some comfort in the existence of the word “Christmastide.”

       Christmas is indeed named after a mass.  It is a compressed version of the Old English Cristesmæsse (Christ’s Mass), and refers to the ceremony in the church on the night of 24 December.  There are other similar compounds, some still in use in the Church of England, such as Michaelmas, Martinmas, Lammas, and Candlemas, all referring to a festival celebrated in the church. 

The Mass is the ceremony of the Eucharist, or the sacrament itself, based on the Last Supper, and the center of all Catholic and many Protestant services.  The word “mass” comes from Latin missa, the feminine perfect participle of mittere, “to release or dismiss,” though there is some debate as to what dismissal is referred to, either the dismissal before the Eucharist of those not prepared for it, or the dismissal of everyone at the end of it.

 The Catholic Mass traditionally ended with Ite, missa est, “Go, [the congregation] is dismissed” or “Go, the dismissal is made,” but which many Christians, taking missa as a noun, must have thought meant something like “Go, the Mass is [done].”

       There is also some debate over the meaning of “Christ,” but the prevalent view is that it comes from the Greek adjective (christos) meaning “annointed (with oil),” a translation of Hebrew mashiach, the “annointed” one, or messiah.  The oil used in anointing ceremonies is called the chrism, which (under French influence) was often pronounced as if it were “cream,” and in fact the word “cream” separated out from “chrism” to become our modern word.

       “Yule” in Old English referred originally to a season, December or December and January, when certain pagan celebrations took place.  In Old Norse the cognate word (jól) is associated with the god Odin.  If there was a particular festival called “yule” at a particular date it is far from clear, but there may well have been one at the winter solstice, or at the first day after it when it is detectible that days are getting longer, that is, December 25 in the Gregorian calendar.

       There is little in the New Testament to give a certain date for the birth of Jesus, but early church thinkers were obviously drawn to the sun symbolism of the solstice: Christ is the Sun of Righteousness rising to dispel the darkness of previous religions, or the like.  A similar light symbolism underlies the date of Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

       Hanukkah (spelled variously in English), the “Feast of Lights,” is the Jewish holiday closest to Christmas.  It was first used in English only in the seventeenth century, but of course it drives from Biblical Hebrew: Hanukkah means “inauguration, dedication, consecration.”

The first “dedication” was the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees reconquered the city from the Seleucid Empire in 165 BCE. 

The date of Hanukkah shifts somewhat against the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the sun only.  The Hebrew calendar is lunisolar: the year has twelve lunar months, but every two or three years an extra month is added to bring the calendar to closer alignment with the solar one.  This year Hanukkah began on December 7; next year it will begin on Christmas night.

       Kwanzaa is a recent invention, but it has caught on among many black Americans, and not only them.  Maulana Karenga, a black activist, synthesized it from various African festivals and set the dates as the week beginning December 25.  According to Wikipedia, “Kwanzaa” derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits.”  Karenga added an a to give the name seven letters, reflecting the seven principles the holiday endorses, and perhaps the seven days of the feast.

       I would have been happy to include a Muslim holiday that coincides roughly with the others here, but I think there is no major one this year.  The Islamic calendar is entirely lunar, so the dates continually shift through the solar year.  The Hindu calendar is also lunar, and unless I have missed something December is not a month for celebrations this year.

       Whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you have, or had, a happy one, and that you have enjoyed this little excursion into where its name came from.

       I am happy to hear from readers with questions or comments: mferber@unh.edu.

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