NOTE: The following post is not an opinion but a didactic post for students, previously published on Lamptēr Glossōn and republished here.
Malls and public places are covered with garlands and decorated trees. Maybe at home, in your own place, your living-room has been prepared now for the celebrations of December. And apart from the gifts that you might be waiting for on the 25th day of this month, another question remains: what is the origin of Christmas?
English language uses a very specific word to refer to this moment of the year. In the word Christmas, you can’t avoid the Christian root or the Christian heritage of the celebration. The word comes from Old English Cristesmæsse which literally meant ‘mass of Christ’ as you could expect. It’s obviously impossible to avoid the Christian aspect of the celebration with such a name.
But you might know that in ancient time and in pre-Christian time, there was a famous Midwinter Festival which was shared across old European societies and which were all evolving around the Winter Solstice – which is now happening near or on the 21st of December in the Gregorian calendar. In English, this moment was called Yule and then Yuletide.
Romans had a similar festival that started on the 17th of December and lasted precisely until before the Winter Solstice. This Roman Midwinter Festival was called Saturnalia in honour of the ancient god Saturn – equivalent of the Greek god Cronus – who was pictured as a bearded man with a scarf covering his head. The Saturnalia were a good opportunity for Romans to have joyful parties and games in which slaves were set free during the whole festival, and social classes were all messed up in purpose, as a symbol of freedom and joy. People used to light up candles and decorate their places and gifts were offered, still in the name of the god Saturn. Historians believe these could be the actual pagan roots of the modern Christmas celebrations were people stop working, gather with family and friends, and offer gifts to each other.
In non-English speaking countries of Europe, other words appeared to replace the pagan names of Midwinter Festival. All Romance languages countries, such as France, Spain, Portugal or Italy, have retained a name which is related with ‘birth’. French language has Noël and Spanish has Navidad. Both of them are alterations of original Latin words that deal with birth. Here is short description of the evolution of both words.
Latin word Natalem, in the phrase Natalem diem, which literally means ‘birth day’, became Noël in French over time and its evolution over the centuries should have looked like something like this:
NATALEM ➲ NATAL ➲ NODAL ➲ NO(D)EL ➲ NOEL
Latin word Nativitatem which exactly meant ‘birth’, became Navidad in Spanish and its evolution is pretty much straightforward:
NATIVITATEM ➲ NA(TI)VITAT ➲ NA(DI)VIDAD ➲ NAVIDAD
If you consider that the Winter Solstice looks like the cosmic rebirth of the Sun in the middle of Winter, you might easily imagine why for many ancient people, that day was a ‘birth’ day. Many gods and heroes had their birth around that moment: Mithra, Horus, Dionysus, etc. So finally had Jesus. It was then easier – and in a way, very universal – for Latin societies to refer to that day as the ‘birth’. You might have also heard about the cult of Sol Invictus in ancient Rome, the ‘Unconquered Sun’ in Latin: a poetical way to remind that after the longest night of the year, the Sun would slowly bring its light back.
Io Saturnalia! Joyeux Noël! ¡Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas, and happy celebrations for this Midwinter Festival!