Remembering Christ in Christ-mas

As a child I remember the feeling that Christmas was *finally* here, after what seemed like weeks, even months, of waiting. Now as an adult, I can’t believe it’s come round so quickly, and I find myself thinking where did those weeks and months fly by to? I guess now there is so much to do in everyday life, so much to distract me from concentrating on one particular thing. Though this year more so than recent years, I’ve noticed a kind of return to a slightly more childlike anticipation of Christmas, no doubt due to having a child of my own now, and experiencing the fun of several parties in the build-up to the day itself. It’s through all this partying that I’ve been reminded, more obviously than before, of the joy that this time of year brings, and of the reason why.

Having seen and heard Christmas greetings in languages other than English, this got me thinking about the word Christmas from a linguistic perspective. It struck me that English is one of few western European languages in which we get a rather obvious reminder of the reason for celebrating Christmas in the word itself. The word in several Romance languages comes from the Latin natalis (meaning ‘natal’, ‘of birth’) or nativitas (meaning ‘birth’, or, if with capital ‘N’, ‘birth of Jesus Christ’) – e.g. Italian Natale, French Noel, Spanish Navidad, Portuguese Natal. The German word Weihnachten comes from the Middle High German ze wihen nahten (meaning ‘on holy nights’) (ah MHG, how this reminds me of undergrad days in Nottingham!). The Scandinavian languages use a word which comes from Old Norse jol (the name of a pagan religious festival which became equated with the Christian celebration of Christmas) – Danish jul, Swedish jul, Norwegian jul, Icelandic jol (it’s also where English Yule comes from). The Dutch word Kerst(-feest/-mis), like the first syllable of English Christmas, comes from the Latin word Christus, originating from Ancient Greek Khristos (meaning ‘the anointed one’), which derived from the Hebrew word Messiah (meaning ‘anointed’).

A knitted Nativity - not sure where Joseph is?! Andrew's first Nativity set

OK, I hope the less linguistically inclined of you (and even those who share my interest in etymology) are still with me. The point that comes out of all this word dropping is that Christ is the reason why we celebrate Christmas. In their words for the celebration, the Scandinavian languages don’t mention this at all, the Romance languages kind of implicitly hint at this (it’s about someone’s birth – Jesus’, if you know Latin), likewise German mentions that it’s something to do with holiness, but English and Dutch explicitly put Christ at the beginning of Christmas. Here the English language makes up somewhat for its inadequacies, inconsistencies and general strangeness.

So who is this ‘Christ’, the ‘anointed one’? The Bible tells us that God’s son, Jesus, was born as a baby boy into our world, so that he would later die, crucified on a Roman cross, to make up for all the wrong things that we as people do, which separate us from God. This baby boy was God’s gift to us, a far greater gift than any of those we’re going to unwrap from under the Christmas tree this year. This gift was also undeserved – Jesus Himself had done nothing wrong, but He took on all the wrong things done by people, and died for our sake. The story doesn’t end there though; Jesus not only died, but also rose again from the dead. This is something I can write more about at Easter. For now let’s stick to Christmas, and the amazing gift from God that we are celebrating. But what does all this mean on a personal level? The one thing God asks of me (and anyone else who believes in Him), is that I follow Jesus, by committing my life to Him and putting Him at the centre of everything I do. Jesus has already made up for all the times I mess up (and continue to mess up), so that I can have everlasting life with God, even after my time in this world. I think that’s absolutely amazing!! (If a little mind-blowing!)

In all the busyness – both fun and annoying – at Christmas time, it’s quite easy to forget Jesus, even though it’s His birthday. I recently heard a simple but clever little way to remember Christ at Christmas. (This isn’t my idea – credit should go to Matt Philips of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge!) A tradition that many people observe at Christmas is hanging candy canes on the tree (apparently, if you believe Wikipedia, the candy cane was originally thought up by a German choirmaster who wanted to give sweets to children at his church at Christmas, but felt he needed to justify this by making the sweets in the shape of a shepherd’s staff, to remind the kids of the shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth). When candy canes hang on the tree, indeed they look like a staff. But if you turn them the other way round, they turn into the letter ‘J’ – a cool little reminder of Jesus 🙂 We hung one on our tree at home, and when we arrived at my parents’ house, their whole tree was decorated with them. I definitely have a great way to remember Jesus this Christmas.

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you enjoy all the fun, and can maybe take some time to remember Christ in Christmas.

Candy cane on our tree...
...turned upside down it turns into the letter 'J'
Candy canes on my parents' tree

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