Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Frohe Weihnachten! Bon Natale! Buon Natale! Feliz Navidad! However you say it, I send you greetings of the season. 🙂
Today’s word nerd choice was a fairly obvious one: Christmas. Do you know how the word came about? What about the phrase ‘merry Christmas’? Or that dreaded abbreviation Xmas?
The word Christmas had its beginnings in the Old English term Cristes mæsse, meaning ‘Christ’s Mass’ (Mass meaning the Eucharist—celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Communion). Pretty straight-forward, huh? Masses specifically commemorating the birth of Christ were celebrated on 25th December as early as the 4th Century AD, but it was almost 1,000 years before the term began appearing as one word rather than two. Interestingly enough, it was also used as a verb for a time, meaning ‘to celebrate Christmas’.
The commonly used greeting Merry Christmas was popularized by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but was used as far back as 1534, in a letter to Thomas Cromwell wishing him ‘a mery Christmas’. At this time, however, the word merry had a slightly different meaning. If you’ve ever sung madrigals or part songs from the 1400-1500s, you’ll have frequently come across phrases like ‘the merry month of May’ and ‘make thee merry’, but rather than its modern meaning of ‘jovial’ (perhaps enhanced by a drink or two), it simply meant ‘pleasant’ or ‘agreeable’.
And finally, that pesky abbreviation Xmas. When I was growing up, there was a popular sticker/phrase making the rounds: Put the CHRIST back in Christmas. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that the X in Xmas wasn’t the English letter X, but the Greek letter chi, written χ (subtle distinction, I know), which is the first letter in the Greek word Χριστός (Christos or Christ). The abbreviation Xmas has actually been around since the 1500s, and the symbol X has been used to represent Christ in Christograms (monograms abbreviating the name of Christ) since at least Constantine I in 312. The most well-known Christogram is the Chi-Rho, using the first two Greek letters Χ (chi) and Ρ (rho) like so:
All that being said, I hope you have a merry (pleasant, agreeable, OR jovial) Christmas (or Xmas), and look forward to sharing more word nerdery in 2018.