Day 1: The Etymology of Christmas

Jan 10, 2023 12:05 AM
On the 1st Day of Christmas, Somebody Gave it a Name


Christmas, Navidad, Noël, Yuletide... All of these names are synonymous with the holiday, but what do they mean? Why isn't the holiday simply called "Jesus' Birthday" and why don't we walk around saying "Happy Jesus' Birthday"? Think it sounds odd? It does. Probably because when we wish people a "Merry Christmas" we aren't really thinking about Jesus. We're usually thinking about Christmas dinner, family, travel, and presents. What we're actually saying is "Have safe travels. I hope you get the presents you want and your family doesn't drive you crazy. Also I hope you eat lots without getting fat." I definitely remember previous Christmases, when out shopping people would say "Merry Christmas" and I would say "Merry Christmas to you too" without even thinking about it. It was about the equivalent of saying "hey" or "how are you." I wasn't thinking about Christ, I was absentmindedly regurgitating words.

36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. 37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.

So what does the phrase Merry Christmas mean? Is it disrespectful to write X-mas? What about these other words for Christmas?

Merry Christmas

The most common phrase heard during the holidays (at least in the US) is Merry Christmas. We know that merry means happy, like the phrase "eat, drink, and be merry." With Christmas, we assume that the word is divided in two: "Christ" and "mas." This instinct is correct. The mas, or mass, in this word originates from mæsse, which literally means "dismissal."[7][8]

This word is also the namesake of the Catholic church service. Merry Christ dismisses? Merry dismissal of Christ? The second interpretation sounds accurate to how the holiday is celebrated today, but is definitely not something we want to say. Christ didn't really dismiss anything at His birth, if anything He called people to attention (like the magi). I guess a case could be made that Christ dismissed death, but He didn't do that until the resurrection, why would that be associated with His birth? In fact, why would that be associated with a Church service anyway? I don't go to commune with God in the hopes of being dismissed, I'd stay with Him forever if that were an option.


A Rebuttal to Catholic Apologetics makes the claim that mass actually means "death sacrifice" and quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia in a statement that defines this sacrifice as the "complete destruction of the victim." Who is the victim being destroyed? The book suggests Christ as the victim, after all He is the one who sacrificed Himself for us. In addition, Christmas is essentially the same as Mass of Christ, which by this definition means “death sacrifice of Christ” or “the complete destruction of Christ.” That would mean when you say Merry Christmas, you are actually said "happy complete destruction of Christ."[9]

Jesus isn't a victim, though; He's the Son of God and God in the flesh. Another site that quotes this passage refers to the 1975 edition Catholic Encyclopedia, which I can't seem to find online. The version I did find online says the following about sacrifices:

If then we combine the four constituent ideas in a definition, we may say: "Sacrifice is the external oblation to God by an authorized minister of a sense-perceptible object, either through its destruction or at least through its real transformation, in acknowledgement of God's supreme dominion and of the appeasing of His wrath." We shall demonstrate the applicability of this definition to the Mass in the section devoted to the nature of the sacrifice, after settling the question of its existence.[10]

To confirm this and understand the context of the quote used, I will have to locate a copy of this book (probably at the library) and do some reading. Just as you should never consider only a portion of the Bible without consider the rest, I don't think it would be fair to jump to a conclusion based on this small segment. When I have found more information, I will update this section.

Feliz Navidad

If you took Spanish, or know the popular song "Feliz Navidad" then you know that this is the Spanish equivalent of Merry Christmas. Feliz means happy in Spanish and Navidad translates to Christmas in English. The etymology of Navidad stems from the Latin words nativitas, natus, and nativus which all reference birth or the nativity.[6]

Joyeux Noël

Joyeux Noël is the French equivalent of Merry Christmas. While I haven't heard the phrase from anyone, the word Noël often appears in holiday decoration and songs (e.g. The First Noël). Noël, is a variant of nael which comes from the Latin natalis (dies). Natalis (dies) would translate to birth (day).[1] Noël (or Noëlle) is a relatively popular name (more so in Europe than in the United States), and was given to children born on Christmas day during the Middle Ages.[2] Both Dictionary.com and Merriam Webster reiterate this definition.[4][5]

Another source states that the word Noël could come from the Celtic words novo, meaning new, and hel, meaning sun. This would be a reference to the winter solstice and sun worship.[3]


Yuletide is rarely said today, but it appears in many songs (like “The Christmas Song”). Generally, it is considered a synonym for Christmas, but Yuletide refers to a pagan Celtic holiday that was celebrated long before Christmas. Yule celebrated the winter solstice and honored the sun, as it was a sun worshipping holiday. This holiday included decorating a tree, wassailing, and honoring the sun through lighting (such as candles).

Watching What You Say

I did a post earlier about gospel and contemporary Christian music that sneaks up on you with ungodly lyrics; Christmas music is no different. How many time have you sung "The Christmas Song" or "Deck the Halls?" Both songs include references to the pagan Yuletide. Similarly, Merry Christmas, while not pagan in origin, may have ill meaning behind its etymology as well.

Many may say, "So what? That's in the past." Well, let me ask you this, the LGBT community has preempted the rainbow as a symbol of pride, do you think God suddenly recognizes the rainbow as a symbol of gay pride or does He still consider it a sign of His covenant with Noah? The real issue here is not just the word, surely many words mean different things when crossing languages and traveling through time, but the fact is, the same traditions are being paraded as Christian traditions. So, not only are we calling a rock a tree, we're treating the tree like a rock.

At the end of the day, the question is not what did we mean when we said those words, but what did God hear? Do I think God is angry at those who do not know better and refer to the Yuletide as though it is a Christian holiday? Not necessarily, but I don't think He's happy either. Say you're allergic to roses; they guy you are dating buys you a dozen because he doesn't know. You'd probably not be angry, but you'd also end up having an allergic reaction and/or tossing his gift. Then you'd inform him of the problem and expect it not to happen again. Through Jesus we can know that any accidental offense we've caused can be forgiven, however, through Jesus (otherwise known as the Word) and history books, we can also study to help us avoid such pit falls.

In short, if you tell me "Merry Christmas," I'm going to tell you "Happy Holiday." (The fact that it's not actually Jesus' birthday is a topic for another post).

Other Posts in this Series


  1. Harper, Douglass. "Noel". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
  2. Campbell, Mike. "Noël". Behind the Name. 2015
  3. "Christmas: Social Customs in France and Canada". Virtual Museum. Canadian Heritage Information Network. 1995
  4. "Noël". Dictionary.com. 2015
  5. "Noël". Merriam Webster. 2015
  6. "Etymology of the Spanish word Navidad". myEtymology. 2015
  7. Harper, Douglass. "Christmas". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
  8. Harper, Douglass. "Mass". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
  9. Howard-Munro, Linda. A Rebuttal to Catholic Apologetics. pg. 137. 2013
  10. "Sacrifice of the Mass". Catholic Online. 2015
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