Why Is It Called Christmas? Where Did the Name Come From

christmas at vatican
The Christmas tree star is seen over the Saint Peter's dome during the unveiled ceremony of the sand nativity scene in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on December 7. Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Around the world every year billions of people celebrate Christmas in their own way and in each country where it's celebrated the holiday has a slightly different name, but where exactly does the word "Christmas" come from?

The word we use today for the holiday is actually a fairly new one. The traditionally Christian holiday is a celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem to Joseph and the Virgin Mary. The English term "Christmas" comes from the combination of the words "mass" and "Christ," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The word Christ comes from the Greek word "Christos" which comes from the Hebrew meaning "Messiah." The Messiah, in Judaism, is the name of the expected king meant to deliver the Jewish nation, according to Britannica.

Many other terms have been used for the holiday as well though. Yule was used before Christmas, according to Britannica, and that term likely had to do with the feast that happens during the winter solstice, which isn't connected to the birth of Jesus. It has far more to do with the Pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice. The solstice happens on the 21st of December each year in the Northern Hemisphere and is generally known as the day with the shortest amount of sunlight and therefore the longest night.

After the longest night of the year, those who celebrated Yule would then celebrate the return of the sun the next morning after the longest night. Today at Stonehenge in England there are still people who turn out each year to greet the rising sun the morning after the winter solstice in keeping with tradition.

In other languages, there are some words for Christmas that are also connected to the birth of Jesus. The word Navidad is thought to be related to nativity, as is the word Natale.

The holiday has moved away from being as religious and many people who aren't Christian celebrate as well. The introduction of Santa Claus and the tradition of gift-giving has also become centric to the holiday in addition to the religious origins.

Those gifts typically come from a figure called Santa Claus which comes from the stories of Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in Europe and other countries around the world in early December. The introduction of St. Nick or Santa Claus to the holiday didn't happen immediately. Stories from the 1200s circulated about gifts St.Nicholas gave and he subsequently became associated with delivering gifts. That later translated into his role as Santa Claus in the Netherlands, a tradition that was carried over to the Americas when the first settlers started making their way to the new land.