The Meaning of Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone! (To those who celebrate other holidays this season, Chag Sameach and Heri za kwanzaa! But please allow me to write about Christmas in this post, as it’s what I know best.)

What does Christmas mean? Well, here’s the literal answer. The first part of the name obviously refers to Jesus Christ, key figure in the world’s arguably most powerful religion. So what about –mas? This is an uncommon suffix with a common meaning: mass. That is, it refers to Mass, the holy ceremony celebrated regularly in some denominations of Christianity, including Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox. During these ceremonies, the observant perform a ritual that commemorates the Lord’s Supper (Jesus Christ’s last meal with his followers), which is sometimes referred to as a feast. So, Christmas means “Christ’s Mass”, but I certainly can understand anyone who scrutinizes this etymology and thinks that the name Christmas would be better suited for Maundy Thursday. Just remember that it is not a feast that Christ himself hosted, but a feast that celebrates Christ’s birth. This is why we also use the associated words Nativity (from Latin nativitas, meaning “birth”) and Noel (from Old French, meaning “day of birth”).

When looking this up, I was curious about the suffix -mas and wondered what other Christian feast days (or festivals) used them. I could only think of one: Candlemas, which takes place 40 days after Christmas. It turns out that there are at least three more: Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael, Martinmas, the feast of St. Martin, and Lammas, the feast of loaves of bread. To be clear, I do not observe any of these feast days. The only mass I celebrate is Christmas.

Now, why do I celebrate Christmas? Like, what does it actually mean? Looking for the non-literal answer? Unfortunately, I primarily see Christmas as a tradition that has very nearly been stripped of its religious significance over the years as a result of its appropriation by mainstream society. In a country where Christmas is celebrated both as a cultural holiday and an actual “holy day,” it’s quite easy for the commercial side to win out. So I spend money on my family and friends, just like everyone else. And I, too, sing fairly vapid songs about sleigh rides and Santa Claus, even though it never snows here and Santa as we know him today is almost entirely a fabrication from the creative minds of clever advertisers.

But I also try to remember that Christmastime is actually not about gifts. It’s not about fun stories and carols. It’s not about family. Actually… it’s about one gift, one story, and one family. When Jesus was born, it was the beginning of a new era, one in which the presence of God came to be with mankind in the humblest, purest form possible: a human baby. The gift of a baby was symbolic of peace to a people living in a time of fear and civil unrest. It was also, to the people who had been waiting for a martial hero to lead the charge against the Romans, a subversive messsage: our hope will not come from military might but from a quiet baby who will lead a quiet revolution. Yes, he will shatter the rod of the oppressor, but it won’t happen the way you expect it to.

So when everyone sings songs of peace and goodwill around this season, it gets me thinking about what peace really means. What does the very weird collection of cultural norms that we have built up around December 25th have to do with actual, tangible peace? Eh… nothing. But what do Christ’s historical birth some two thousand years ago and its lasting spiritual impact have to do with the alleviation of our society’s growing pains today? As much as you want them to, I’d like to think.

In the words of my eloquent friend Wes, “Christians the world over are collectively considering the very real possibility that the world does not need to continue on the seemingly inexorable path towards destruction that can so often seem so evident… [We] remember the birth of a child that represented the most preposterous Hope of redemption. This is a story of intervention, disruption from the norm, interruption of the natural order of things. A forgotten and marginalized family — in their hometown, with nowhere to stay, struggling under the heel of a resented and oppressive regime — and the birth of an impossible and unexpected child. Whatever your background or perspective, I hope you can be encouraged and nourished by this message of hope.”

I don’t know what that sounds like to somebody who didn’t hear the same story told year after year growing up, as I did. But it gives me pause. It makes me think. There is a ton of change long overdue in this world, in this country, in this neighborhood, in this life. And the meaning of Christmas, to me, is that as impossible as it may seem, the miracle we’re all waiting for really can happen.

What does Christmas mean to you?


Word of the Day: messiah, from the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ mashiach, meaning “anointed one,” refers to the king chosen by God that the Jewish people await, who will liberate them and rule the new Zion. Christians believe that the wait was over when Jesus was born. (Christ is actually the Greek translation of mashiach.) The word can also be used metaphorically for any person who is hoped to save a group of people from a dire situation. And yes, it is also the name of Handel’s famous oratorio, which is really, really difficult to sing.

P.S. You can read the actual Nativity story here really quick, or at least one of two versions. The other one is here.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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