Why Is It Called Christmas? The Origin and Meaning of the Name Explained

It's hard to imagine a time when the Christmas holiday wasn't referred to as Christmas, but it wasn't always the name for the celebration marking Jesus' birth.

On Wednesday, family and friends will gather in homes across the globe to share good tidings and exchange gifts in honor of the Christmas holiday. Oftentimes, loved ones will share a meal and since the holiday is one of the most important for those observing the Christian faith, some people attend church services either on Christmas Day or the night before on Christmas Eve.

Church officials started celebrating Jesus' birth in the fourth century, according to History.com, and Pope Julius I chose December 25. The Bible doesn't mention the date of Jesus' birth and there's debate as to when it actually took place. Some point to the shepherds' presence to argue that it was likely spring since that's when they herd, and others claim the stars depicted in the sky indicate it was a summer birth.

By the time the church decided to celebrate Jesus' birth, there were already a number of festivities that marked the winter solstice, including the pagan Saturnalia festival. It's possible Pope Julius I chose December 25 because if it was surrounded by other holidays, it was more likely to be embraced.

Initially, Jesus' birth celebration was called the Feast of the Nativity and was celebrated in England by the end of the sixth century, according to History.com. The first known use of Christmas, according to Merriam-Webster, was before the 12th century and originates from Middle English's Christemass meaning "Christ's mass." Mass in Old English, according to Dictionary.com, references a church service.

christmas meaning origin
Christmas nativity scene covered with snow is seen at a house on Christmas day on December 25, 2017, in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx borough of New York City. Christmas wasn't always called Christmas and was once referred to as the "Feast of the Nativity." Amir Levy/Getty

Encyclopedia Britannica explained that the term "Christmas" is of "fairly recent origin," and Dictionary.com reported the Christ part of the word Christmas derived from the Greek word Chrīstos, spelled Χριστός in Greek. This explains why people abbreviate Christmas to Xmas.

The first letter of Christos (Christ) in Greek is Chi, appearing as the letter "X" in English. X was first used to abbreviate Christ in the mid-1500s, according to Dictionary.com.

While Navidad in Spanish, Noel in French and Natale in Italian probably denote nativity and directly relate to Jesus' birth, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the common Christmas phrase, "Yule," likely has more to do with the winter solstice.

By the 900s, Germanic people celebrated Yule, a 12-day pagan festival, in December and January around the winter solstice. Anyone who's heard the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," probably recognizes the word "yuletide," as in the line preceding "next year all our troubles will be miles away."

Although not initially used to reference the season around Jesus' birth, Dictionary.com reported the word "Yuletide," can be used to describe the Christmas season.