Holy days and holidays

As the holiday season is upon us, I feel that it is timely to give some thought to some of the diverse origins of words associated with Christian holidays in English. Christmas, of course, is derived from Christ mass (i.e. a mass for Christ) akin to other holidays, which have waned in relative importance over the years, such as Michaelmas (the mass for the Feast of St. Michael), Candlemas (the Candle Mass on the Feast of the Purification), and Childermas (Children's Mass or the commemoration of the Massacre of the Innocents).

However, Christmas is often synonymous with Yule as in such expressions as "Yuletide cheer" and "Yule log." Yule is the pagan Germanic winter festival celebrated before the Germanic peoples were converted to Christianity (and elements of Yule were incorporated into the celebration of Christmas in these regions). In fact, in Scandinavian languages, cognates of Yule (such as "Jul" in Swedish) are still used to refer to Christmas itself.

As for the term "Noel," which has traditionally been a name given to baby boys born in December and appears in the Christmas carol "the first Noel," that is the French word for Christmas (Noël). Similarly, "Natalie" has often been given to girls born around this time, as "Natalie" is derived from "Natal," which, along with its cognates, is the word of Christmas in a number of Romance languages, such as Portuguese ["Natal") and Italian ("Natale"). It is not surprising that "Natal" refers to the birth of Christ (analogous to terms such as pre-natal or ante-natal care) and is related to words such as "nativity" (as in "nativity scenes" that depict the birth celebrated at Christmastime).

Easter has a similar multilingual and multicultural background. Easter is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Eostre-monath," a month honoring the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre (a cognate of the continental form Ostara). The Greek form "Pascha," derived in term from the Hebrew word "Pesach" ("Passover") found its way into Latin as "Pascha" and hence not only into most modern Romance languages (such as "Pascua" in Spanish), but also a number of Celtic languages (such as "Pask" in Breton) and even some Germanic languages ("Pasen" in Dutch), although German uses "Ostern." In English, occasionally, the form "Paschal" is used to refer to the feast celebrated with Easter. For the most part, Slavic languages (with the exception of Russian) have remained outside this influence, with some Slavic languages opting for the equilavents of "Great Day" or "Great Night" (such as "Velikonoce" in Czech) and the South Slavic languages occasionally borrowing terms (such as "Uskrs," meaning Resurrection, in Serbian and Croatian) from Old Church Slavonic.

And finally, some Christian churches celebrate the "Eucharist" (Holy Communion) every Sunday. The word is derived from Greek eucharistía (comprised of roots for "good" and "grace"), with "Eucharistéō" being the verb "to thank" in New Testament Greek. It comes as no surprise that "Eucharist" is directly related to "efharisto," which is Modern Greek for "thank you."

Happy holidays!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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