Christmas – What’s in a Name?
Actually quite a lot! Our English word “Christmas” evokes all sorts of pleasant and wonderful images, from Santa Claus and his reindeer to renderings of a manger surrounded by shepherds, as well as a host of others. We see it often as a time of togetherness, reflection on faith and family, and for the giving of gifts. Of course there is the yearly discomfort with the ever-present secular merchandising of Christmas, but we all seem to get past those feelings and enjoy the season all the same.
But what about the name “Christmas?” The term comes from the shortening of two older words: “Christ” and “Mass.” The word Mass is derived from the Latin word misse, which means to “dismiss” or “send away”. It is a reference to “The Christ” dismissing or sending away the sins of His people. If you noticed that the reference to “Mass” has more to do with Good Friday and Easter than with the birth of the Lord, you are correct!
Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of the Lord, (or other birthdays for that matter) until around 300 A.D. Until that time, Christians in the Roman Empire were heavily persecuted, and some even killed for their faith. Christians placed more emphasis on celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ than on His birth.
Now, if the Christ was able to just “send away” the sins of His people on the event of his death, how was he able and qualified to do something that significant? The answer to that question is in the meaning of the title “Christ.”
Many people think “Christ” is Jesus’ last name! It is not. “Christ” is a title that could only be assigned to a very special person. The word Christ comes from the Greek word “Christos” which means “Anointed” or “Designated One.” It is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word, “Messiah”. The word Messiah also means “Anointed One.” In the Old Testament, it sometimes referred to a king chosen by God, but it is also used to refer to a future “Anointed One” who would be born to be very special.
One evening around 4-6 B.C., an angel appeared to shepherds in a field just east of Bethlehem, in the Roman Province of Judea. A short distance away, King Herod—who had been declared “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate—was comfortable and perhaps asleep in his warm palace.
Luke, the physician/historian who was the companion of the apostle Paul, records the events and dialogue of that night in chapter 2:11. “For today, in the city of David (Bethlehem), there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” There are three main titles in this announcement. First the term “Savior.” In the Hebrew language, the word Savior is “Yeshua”, translated Joshua or Jesus. In Matthew 1:21 Joseph was commanded to name the child Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.” The second term is “Christ” the “Anointed One”, and the third names the identity of the “Anointed One” who is “The Lord.” While the term for Lord (kurios) can mean simply someone of honor or authority, in this context it is clearly referring to God Himself! This Savior is “the Christ” and is God Himself, and thus qualified to “send away“ the sins of His people — even the sins of the world!
One rarely noticed fact about the Christ is that both His entrance and exit from this world were unlike any human being either before or after Him. His entrance was a miraculous event, a conception by a virgin with no human father. This was prophesied hundreds of years prior and announced by angels. After the birth of the Christ, Herod the King attempted to murder Him. But that was not God’s plan because the Christ was intended to live a sinless and perfect life, keeping and fulfilling the Law of God perfectly. His exit from this world was also unlike any other human being. He died an innocent death, executed on a Roman cross, a punishment that was reserved for state criminals. Yet he did not remain dead and buried. In three days He showed himself alive to his disciples and even to a large gathering of more than five hundred people! His exit from this world was a bodily ascension into heaven! No one but He has ever done something like that!
Thus, the celebration of Christmas encompasses the Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension and future Return of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ. These events made possible the “Great Exchange”: our sins were taken from us by “the Christ”, and the “righteousness” of “the Christ” was given to those who believe in Him as a gift! His death was for our sins, His righteousness is for our life! The celebration which some call the Eucharist, others the Lord’s Supper, the “Christ Mass” is a celebration that remembers His death, which was the payment for sins, His righteousness was given to those who trust in Him, and a promise of His return to the earth. He has saved and will save His people from their sins. This is what “Christmas” means. Isaac Watts, who wrote the Christmas Hymn “Joy to the World” did not originally write the hymn about the birth of the Lord, but rather the return of the Lord! If you read the lyrics carefully, you will recognize this fact.
As years have passed, additional cultural traditions have grown up alongside Christmas. Here are just a few you may recognize:
As previously mentioned, the formal celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ began around the year 300 A.D., but the actual terms which are equivalent to “Christmas” were not recorded until 1038. In 331 A.D., the Edict of Milan was issued by the Roman Empire, when it became legal for anyone to openly worship and celebrate “Christ the Lord.” Official Roman government persecution of Christians ceased, although a later emperor, Julian the Apostate, brought Christian persecution back for a short time.
Everyone has heard of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a third century Christian Bishop in ancient Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The tradition of an anonymous visitor arriving at a home in the middle of the night and delivering bags of gifts stems from the story of Nicholas sneaking into a house of a destitute friend on three consecutive nights, and each time leaving a bag of gold coins. The story goes that he was caught on the third night of his generous escapade by his friend. However, his friend agreed to keep his identity secret! Nicolas was of course motivated to show the love of Christ to his friend. Other stories reveal him as “Jolly Saint Nick” being a life-long generous giver of gifts to many.
In the eighth century, a British Missionary, Saint Boniface, was evangelizing in Bavaria in Germany. Fierce and warlike tribes in the German Alps were resistant to the good news of Jesus Christ. In the town of Giesmar, human sacrifice was still practiced in front of a large oak tree dedicated to Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. The tribe was preparing to sacrifice a young child when Boniface arrived on the scene. There are a few different storylines that have survived concerning this event. One says Boniface chopped down the tree with an axe before the stunned tribesmen, others say the oak tree was struck by lightning and destroyed, and all the people thought Boniface exhibited superior power over Thor. Whatever the case, the aftermath was that Boniface called their attention to a nearby young evergreen tree, which symbolized eternal life in its green needles, the top of the tree that always pointed toward heaven, and the three corners of the evergreen tree that symbolized and illustrated the Trinity. The tradition of the “Christ Mass” tree began here.
In the Netherlands, the character of Sinterklass (a contraction of Sint Nikolass) emerged as a jolly man who visited homes and left sweet treats for those who were good, but left lumps of coal in the stockings of children who were bad.
Dutch and German immigrants brought these traditions to America and the stories were transformed into the Santa Claus of today.
Though these stories sometimes obscure the true meaning of Christmas, the meaning of the name “Christmas” reveals the core truth: the mystery of God in human flesh, born for a purpose of suffering and dying in order to dismiss the sins of His people and reconcile all of creation to Himself. Only the Christ has the authority and the power to do such a tremendous thing and give the truly best gift of Christmas, which is peace with God.