Liturgical Names • 

The original Latin names for Christmas are: Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ) and the shorter form, Dies Natalis Domini (the Birthday of Our Lord).

From these Latin names most nations obtained their popular terms for the Christmas feast: II Natale in Italy, La Natndad in Spain, Natal in Portugal, Nadal in southern France, Nadolig in Wales (and probably the Gaelic NoUaig, as well). The Greek Genethlia means "Nativity," as do the names for Christmas in Hungarian (Kardcsony) and in most of the Slavic languages: Boze Narodzenie (God's Birth) in Polish; Rozhdestvo Khrista (Christ's Birth) in Russian and Ukrainian.37

The French word Noel can be explained as either coming from the Latin natalis (birthday) or from the word nowel which means "news." In an old English Christmas verse the angel says:

I come from hevin to tell

The best nowellis that ever befell.

It is possible that both explanations are right. Noel and nowel may be words of different origin that have become identical in meaning because they are pronounced the same.38

Popular Names • 

The English word Christmas is based on the same pattern as the old names for other feast days in the liturgical year, such as Michaelmas, Martinmas, Candlemas. The first mention of the name, "Christes Maesse," dates from the year 1038. It means "the Mass of Christ." The English nation (as did all Christian nations at the time) acknowledged the Sacrifice of the Mass as the most important part of the Christmas celebration. For instance, the word in the Dutch language was Kersmis (the Mass of Christ); the old Dutch form is Kerstes-misse or Kersmisse, the German, Christmesse.

The German word for Christmas, Weihnacht or, in the plural form, Weihnachten, means "the blessed (or holy) night." Similar terms meaning "the holy night" are used in some Slavic languages (Czech, Slovak, Yugoslavian). The Lithuanian word Kaledos is derived from the verb Kaledoti (to beg, to pray) and has the meaning "Day of Prayer."

Yule • 

The origin of the word yule is disputed. Some scholars say it comes from the old Germanic word Jol {Jul, Giul), meaning a turning wheel (in this instance the sun wheel rising after the winter solstice). A better explanation, however, might be the Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast). Since the greatest popular feast in pre-Christian times was the celebration of the winter solstice, the whole month of December was called geola (feast month). This name was preserved in the English and German languages, and later applied to the Feast of Christmas: Yule in English, and Jul in German.39

Merry Christmas • 

When this greeting was originally used, the word merry did not mean "joyful, hilarious, gay," as it does today. In those days it meant "blessed, peaceful, pleasant," expressing spiritual joys rather than earthly happiness. It was thus used in the famous phrase "Merry England."

The well-known carol "God rest you merry, gentlemen" is an excellent example of the original meaning of merry. The position of the comma clearly shows the true meaning (that the word is not an adjective describing "gentlemen"), and therefore is not "God rest you, joyful gentlemen,"but "God rest you peacefully, gentlemen." 40


The Vigil of Christmas • 

The Mass of December 24 is not the original vigil Mass of the feast, but was inserted later, during the fifth century. The actual vigil Mass, following the night service of prayer, was the midnight Mass at St. Mary Major, which is now the first Mass of Christmas Day. Another unusual feature of this Mass is its joyful and festive character. Unlike the other vigils, in which the penitential note is stressed, the Mass of the Christmas vigil is jubilant, filled with holy joy. That the vestments are of penitential color appears almost an incongruity when one studies the Mass text. 41

The spirit of this joyful and jubilant vigil has asserted itself in the observance of the faithful through all the past centuries. In the countries of central Europe people just could not see how this day should be as strict and painful a fast as other fast days of penitential character. While gladly keeping abstinence from meat all through the day, they felt justified in reducing the strictness of fasting as to the amount of food. Thus a legitimate custom of "joyful fast" (jeiunium gaudiosum) was established in such countries for this one day of the year. 42

Three Masses • 

A custom that reaches back to the early centuries of Christianity is the celebration of three Masses on the Feast of the Nativity. It was originally reserved to the pope alone, and did not become universal until the end of the first millennium when the papal books of ceremonies had been adopted by the FranMsh Church. 43

The first Mass originally was connected with the vigil service at the chapel of the manger in the church of St. Mary Major in Rome. 44 There Pope Sixtus III (440) had erected an oratory with a manger, which was considered a faithful replica of the crib at Bethlehem.45 The pope celebrated the Holy Sacrifice about midnight, in the presence of a small crowd, since the chapel could not hold many people.

The public and official celebration of the feast was held on Christmas Day at the church of St. Peter, where immense crowds attended the pope's Mass and received Communion. This was the third Mass as it appears in todays Missals. Under Pope' Gregory VII (1085) the place of this Mass was changed from St. Peters to St Mary Major, because that church was nearer to the Lateran Palace (where the popes lived).46

In the fifth century, the popes started the custom of visiting at dawn, between these two services, the palace church of the Byzantine governor. There they conducted a service in honor of Saint Anastasia, a highly venerated martyr whose body had been transferred from Constantinople about 465 and rested in this church which bore her name. The whole Byzantine colony in Rome gathered at their church on Christmas Day for this solemn visit of the Holy Father. In later centuries, when the power and prestige of the East Roman Empire waned, the popular devotion of Saint Anastasia declined. The Station in her honor was still kept, however, and has been retained in Missals up to the present day. Instead of the original Mass in honor of Saint Anastasia, another Mass of the Nativity was substituted, in which the saint is now merely commemorated. This is the second one of the three Masses on Christmas Day.47

As the texts of the Roman Missal show, the first Mass honors the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, the second celebrates His incarnation and birth into the world, the third His birth, through love and grace, in the hearts of men. According to'the contents of the respective Gospels, people came to call the first Mass "Angels Mass," the second "Shepherds Mass," and the third "Mass of the Divine Word." 48

There are no special liturgical ceremonies other than the three Masses on Christmas Day. The feast, however, is usually celebrated with great splendor and solemnity in all churches. The color of the liturgical vestments is white, in token of its joyful and consoling character.

Midnight Mass • 

The first Mass is usually said at midnight on Christmas because of the traditional belief that Christ was born at that hour. There is, of course, no historical evidence to uphold this pious belief, which has its source in the following text from the Book of Wisdom (18, 14-15):

For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from Thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction.

As the context shows, these words refer to the slaying of the first-born in Egypt; but the medieval theologians applied it as a prophetical reference to the Incarnation of the Divine Word. A beautiful Latin hymn of the fourth century, "Quando noctis medium" expresses this common belief in our Lord's birth at midnight:

When the midnight, dark and still,

Wrapped in silence vale and hill:

God the Son, through Virgins birth,

Following the Fathers will,

Started life as Man on earth. 49

In the liturgy of the Church, midnight is not assigned as the official time for the first Mass. It is merely prescribed that it be said in node (during the night). Hence in some places the first Mass is celebrated before dawn, at four or five in the morning. During earlier centuries (400-1200) the Roman regulations prescribed that the first Mass should be celebrated ad galli cantum (when the cock crows), which was about three o'clock in the inorning.50 A relic of this custom is found among the Spanish-speaking people, who even today call the midnight Mass Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Cock).


Legends • 

The sacred character of the night from December 24 to 25 has been acknowledged from ancient times by the term "Holy Night." Popular traditions of the Middle Ages ascribed to this night a hallowed and mysterious note of celebration and wondrous goodness. A spirit of peace and adoration was thought to prevail over the whole world, and nature was pictured as taking part in this joyful observance. Many of these legends are| still alive today and form a charming part of the folklore of Christmas.

The cattle in the stables fall on their knees at midnight on Christmas; so do the deer in the forest.51 The bees awake from sleep and hum a beautiful symphony of praise to the Divine Child; but only those can hear it who are dear to the Lord.52 The birds sing all night at Christmas; their voices become sweeter and more melodious, and even the sparrows sing like nightingales. In the Orient there is a legend that during Holy Night all trees and plants, especially those on the banks of the Jordan, bow in reverence toward Bethlehem.53

On Christmas Eve the water in wells and fountains is blessed by God with great healing powers and heavenly sweetness. Mysterious bells are heard pealing joyfully from the depths of deserted -mines, and cheerful lights may be seen blinking at the bottom of lonely shafts and caves.54

Other legends tell of how animals talk like humans at midnight. Their favorite language seemed to he Latin. In an old French mystery play the cock crows with a piercing voice,. "Christus notus est" (Christ is born); the ox moos, "UbiF' (Where?); the lamb answers, "Bethlehem"; and the ass brays, "Eomusr (Let us go!).55 In central Europe the animals in the stable are said to gossip about the public and hidden faults of those who listen in on their conversation.56

One of the oldest Christian legends is the charming story related by Saint Gregory of Tours (594) in his Libri Miroculorum (Book of Miracles) concerning the well of the Magi near Bethlehem. The people of Bethlehem made a practice of going there during Christmas week, bending over the opening of the well and covering themselves and the opening -with blankets or cloaks to shut out the light of day. Then, as they peered into the dark well the star of Bethlehem, according to this pious legend, could be seen moving slowly across the water—but only by those who were pure of heart.57

Another legend inspired the popular belief that the power of malignant spirits, of ghosts and witches, was entirely suspended during the Christmas season. The mystical presence of the Christ Child made them powerless; no harm could be done to men or beasts or homes. Shakespeare has made this legend immortal by these familiar lines from Act I, Scene 1 of Hamlet:

Some say ilxat ever 'gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long: And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad; The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, no witch l%as power to charm, So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

It was an old and comforting belief that the gates of Paradise were open on Christmas at midnight, so that any person dying at that hour could enter Heaven at once.58 Another legend considered every child born on Christmas especially blessed and fortunate. In addition to other gifts and privileges, such children were said to have the power of seeing spirits, and even of commanding them.59

There is the lovely medieval legend of the "Christmas angel." Every year—so the story goes—the Blessed Virgin Mary selects a number of angels and sends them out from Heaven into various parts of the world. Each angel awakens a little child from its first sleep and carries it to Paradise to sing a carol to the Christ Child. When the children afterward tell of their beautiful errand, some people will say it was just a dream; but those who know better will assure you that these children are chosen by God to be blessed with unusual favors.60

Christmas Eve • 

In many European countries, especially in central and northern Europe, the family celebration takes place on the evening of December 24. The common features of this celebration are a festive meal in the evening, at which, besides various native dishes, fish is the main fare, because, according to canon law, Christmas Eve is a day of fast and abstinence among all Catholic populations. Later in the evening the family gathers to enter the festively decorated room where the Christmas tree and the presents are ready. The small children believe that the Christ Child, accompanied by angels, has decorated the tree and brought the gifts. A sign is given with a little bell, the doors fly open, and the whole family enters the room. Standing or kneeling in front of the Christmas crib, which is usually set up under the tree, they pray and sing Christmas hymns. Then they wish each other a blessed feast and proceed to open their gift packages.61

The Slavic people, and also the Lithuanians, have a touching and impressive custom which resembles the Agape (love meal) of the early Christians in apostolic times. At the beginning of the vigilia (the meatless Christmas Eve dinner) the father of the family solemnly breaks wafers (Oplatki) and distributes them, kissing each member of the household and wishing them a joyful feast. In many places these wafers are blessed beforehand by the priest.62

Another custom practiced among the Slavic people and other nations of Europe (among them Hungarians and Lithuanians) is the placing of straw under the tablecloth and the bedding of small children on straw or hay during Holy Night, in memory of the Lord's reclining on straw and the manger.63

A very old and practical tradition made it obligatory on Christmas Eve to see that the house was thoroughly cleaned, all borrowed articles returned, all tools laid aside, no lint allowed "to remain on rock or wheel," no unfinished work exposed to sight, and no task started that could not be finished by nightfall. 64

It was a widespread practice to be especially kind to animals at Christmas and to allow them to share in the joy of the feast. This tradition is still alive in northern and central Europe and .in Scandinavia. People put out sheafs of grain for the birds and give their farm animals extra fodder on Christmas Eve.65 This custom was begun by Saint Francis of Assisi (1226). He admonished the farmers to give their oxen and asses extra corn and hay at Christmas, "for reverence of the Son of God, whom on such a night the blessed Virgin Mary did lay down in the stall between the ox and the ass." All creation, said he, should rejoice at Christmas, and the dumb creatures had no other means of doing so than by enjoying more comfort and better food. "If I could see the Emperor," he said, "I would implore him to issue a general decree that all people who are able to do so, shall throw grain and corn upon the streets, so that on this great feast day the birds might have enough to eat, especially our sisters, the larks."66

Holy Night • 

An inspiring and colorful sight are the Christmas fires burned on~the peaks of the Alps. Like flaming stars they hang in the dark heavens during Holy Night, burning brightly, as the farmers from around the mountainsides walk through the winter night down into the valley for midnight Mass. Each person carries a lantern, swinging it to and fro; the night seems alive with, hundreds of glowworms converging toward the great light at the foot of the mountain—the parish church.67

In some sections of England, Ireland, and Scotland, a quaint and unusually interesting custom was practiced in medieval times. One hour before midnight the big bell of the church would begin to toll its slow and solemn message of mourning, and it would thus continue for the whole hour, as if tolling for a funeral. But at the moment of midnight, just as the clock struck twelve, all the bells would suddenly ring out in a merry peal of Christmas joy. This tolling from eleven to twelve was called "the Devil's funeral," for according to the old legend, the Devil died when Christ was born.68

Another custom connected with midnight Mass is the ringing of church bells during the solemn service of Vespers, which is beld in many places directly before the midnight service.69 In America, chimes and carillons accompany or replace the bells in many churches, ringing out the tunes of familiar carols, especially the joyous invitation "O come, all ye faithful."

In Austria, Bavaria, and other countries of central Europe, carols are played from the church towers before midnight Mass; the tunes of traditional Christmas songs ring out through the stillness of the winter night, clear and peaceful, creating an unforgettable impression.70

In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the statue of the Divine Child is placed on the altar after the first Mass and then carried in procession to the crypt, where it is laid on the silver star that marks what is believed to be the actual spot of the Lord's birth. The Gospel of Saint Luke is sung, and when the deacon comes to the words "she laid him in a manger," the statue is lifted from the floor and placed in the rock-hewn crib next to the star.71 A similar custom used to be observed in sections of central Europe, where the figure of the Christ Child was solemnly placed in the crib after the first Mass, while the people in church sang their ancient carols.72

Among the French people it is an old custom to hold a joyful family gathering and a traditional meal (reveillon) directly after midnight Mass. In Spain people promenade on the streets after the midnight Mass with torches, tambourines, and guitars, singing and greeting each other.73


To be continued











Keith Hunt