Christmas, Xmas, and Yuletide: 5 things to know and share

Where does the word "Christmas" come from? Is "Xmas" okay? What about "Yuletide"?
Where does the word "Christmas" come from? Is "Xmas" okay? What about "Yuletide"? (photo: Register Files)

A reader writes:

Jimmy could you please tell us about the origin of the word "Christmas? What did the first Christians call what we today know as Christmas?

Is writing X'mas okay? As in today's language X means “nothing.” I know that X is the 22nd letter of Greek alphabet known as chi. This chi is the first part of the word chirios or expanded to Christos, which means to anoint.

Thus we say that Christos & Messiah are the same. We accept Christos, why not Messiah? Just because St Paul called Jesus Christ?

Also Yuletide? Since Yule is a pagan rather a Gentile term for winter solstice in the northern regions, and a period dedicated to Saturnalia, how come we Christians have adopted this word? What are its implications?

Happy to oblige! Let’s take the questions one by one . . .


1) What is the origin of the word “Christmas”?

The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English phrase Christes maesse (“Christ’s Mass”)—that is the Mass celebrated in honor of Christ’s birth.

From this original reference to a particular Mass celebrated in the Church’s liturgical year, the term came to apply both to the day on which the Mass was celebrated and to the liturgical season associated with it (i.e., the Christmas season, aka Christmastide).

The term Christes maesse began to be written in English as one word in the mid-1300s.


Note that this only applies to English and languages that English has influenced. Other terms are used for this day (and season) in other languages.

For example, in Spanish, “Christmas” is Navidad, in Italian it is Natale, and in French it is Noël. These terms are derived from the Latin root nativitas, from which we also get the word “Nativity” (i.e., birth).



2) What did the first Christians call what we today know as Christmas?

The first Christians do not appear to have had a word for this day, because the first Christians do not appear to have celebrated this day. It took some time for the practice of celebrating Christmas to emerge.

Benedict XVI explained:

To understand better the meaning of the Lord's Birth I would like to make a brief allusion to the historical origins of this Solemnity. In fact, at the outset the Liturgical Year of the Church did not develop primarily from Christ's Birth but rather from faith in his Resurrection. Thus Christianity's most ancient Feast is not Christmas but Easter; the Christian faith is founded on Christ's Resurrection, which is at the root of the proclamation of the Gospel and gave birth to the Church. Therefore being Christian means living in a Paschal manner, letting ourselves be involved in the dynamism that originated in Baptism and leads to dying to sin in order to live with God (cf. Rom 6: 4).

Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, written in about a.d. 204, was the first person to say clearly that Jesus was born on 25 December. . . .

For Christianity the Feast of Christmas acquired its definitive form in the fourth century [General Audience, Dec. 23, 2009].


3) Is writing “Xmas” okay?

Yes, it is “okay” to write “Xmas.” It’s just an abbreviation, and there is nothing sinful about abbreviating a word, even one containing the term “Christ.”

In fact, the earliest Christians did frequently abbreviate sacred terms. Scholars studying early Christian manuscripts are familiar with a phenomenon known as the nomina sacra (“sacred names”; singular = nomen sacrum) in which terms like “God,” “Jesus,” “Lord,” and “Christ” were regularly abbreviated precisely because they were sacred.

This happens in our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament documents. Thus, “God” (Greek, theos) was abbreviated with a theta and a sigma (its first and last letters in Greek), “Jesus” (Iesous) was abbreviated iota-sigma, “Lord” (Kurios) was abbreviated kappa-sigma, and “Christ” (Christos) was abbreviated chi-sigma.

The appearance of the nomina sacra is one of the ways that we date when a Christian manuscript was written, because this practice characterized the early centuries.

Similar abbreviations have appeared later, though. Concerning “Xmas,” the Online Etymology Dictionary says:

Xmas (n.) 

"Christmas," 1551, X'temmas, wherein the X is an abbreviation for Christ in Christmas, English letter X being identical in form (but not sound signification) to Greek chi, the first letter of Greek Christos "Christ" (see Christ). The earlier way to abbreviate the word in English was Xp- or Xr- (corresponding to the "Chr-" in Greek Χριστος), and the form Xres mæsse for "Christmas" appears in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" (c.1100).

At the same time, I understand the squeamishness many folks have about the abbreviation, particularly if they don’t have this background info.


4) Do we accept the term Messiah as well as Christos?

Whether “Christ” or “Messiah” is used depends largely on the language one is speaking. The New Testament is written in Greek, and so it normally uses the term christos, though it does use messias (a Greek version of the Aramaic mshiha) in John 1:41 and 4:25.

The prominence of christos compared to messias in the Greek New Testament is the reason that in much of Christendom the term “Christ” is used more frequently than “Messiah,” though in languages like Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew (which are all related to each other) variations on “Messiah” turn up more frequently.

Since the terms mean the same thing, they are both used, and which is used in a particular case is a matter of custom.


5) What about “Yuletide”?

“Yuletide” is simply a contraction of “Yule” and “tide” (i.e., time), meaning “Yule time” or “the time of Yule.”

When we dig deeper than this, the answer becomes more complex. You will find sources out there that say Yule was a pre-Christian pagan holiday in Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, lots of what gets said about pre-Christian holidays is absolute bunk, and so such claims are not to be simply accepted. They must be tested.

When you do that, the claim that Yule was a pre-Christian holiday starts to appear shaky.

What seems certain is that the term Yule was used to refer to a an extended period of time (e.g., a month or two months), but it is not at all clear that it referred to any particular holiday in pre-Christian times.

British historian of paganism Ronald Hutton states:

In the eleventh century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’, which provided an alternative name for it among the English.

It became popular with them in the next century, and in the thirteenth is first recorded in Scotland, where it had become standard in vernacular speech by the end of the Middle Ages.

In Old Norse it is jol, in Swedish jul, and in Danish juul.

The derivation of the name has baffled linguists; it is possibly related to the Gothic heul or Anglo-Saxon hweal, signifying a wheel, or to the root-word which yielded the English expression ‘jolly’.

Nothing certain, however, is known, and there is equal doubt over whether it was originally attached to a midwinter festival which preceded the Christian one (Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, p. 6).

Regardless of the origin of the word, it’s just a word. What matters for what a word means is how it is presently used, not where it came from. (Thus “nice” means nice, it doesn’t mean ignorant, even though it came from the Latin word nescius, which means not knowing).

Sounds do not carry “evil vibrations” from how they may or may not have been used before.

Today, in English, Yule refers to Christmas, and Yuletide refers to Christmas time.

That’s what counts for speakers of modern English.

Also, Yule and Christmas (both) have nothing to do with Saturnalia, which was a Roman holiday, not a Norse or Christian one.



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