Special Holiday Issue, Christmas/Solstice 2001, page 1
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This coming Tuesday, the 25th of December, in case any of our readers were unaware, is Christmas. In northern England it was also known as Kesmas, Cursmas, and Cursmis. Originally Cristes męsse in Old English, it means simply the mass, or festival, of Christ. It is supposed to commemorate the birth of Christ but, as his actual birthday is unknown, the Council of Nicea (320-323 A.D.) assigned it to this date as a compromise with the cult of Mithras.
Those who followed ancient Roman paganism also had a festival at approximately the same time of year called Saturnalia, "the feast of the god Saturn". This festival was marked by reversing many social customs - slaves would be served by their masters and men would wear women's clothes. Some of this role reversal has survived to the present day. In the British Christmas tradition of Pantomime, the "principal boy" is always played by a woman and "his" mother (known as "the dame") is always played by a man.
In northern Europe, a festival was celebrated at this time of the year long before the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and this festival was called yule, though the origin of this word is obscure.
Some people object to the use of Xmas as a hideous neologism. This abbreviation is hardly an innovation as its first recorded use was in 1551 and the X in Xmas is a very old abbreviation for Christ, from the Greek letter chi "ch", which looks like an X and is the first letter in Greek Christos. In the days before general literacy, many people would sign documents by making "their mark", often an elaborate squiggle or flourish. Ordinary folk, who had not the time to practice nor the wit to remember such devices, would simply draw a cross or chi, the symbol of Christ, on the paper and then kiss it to show their sincerity. This X symbol was also known as the Christ-cross, which later became slurred to criss-cross. Also, this is why an X at the bottom of a letter (or Christmas card) means a kiss.
The etymology of carol is uncertain. While there is general agreement that it comes from the Old French carole, no one really knows where it came from before that. Most agree that the earlier form was probably corola but opinions are divided as to whether it derives from chorus (i.e. the singing dancers of ancient theater) or from corolla, "crown" or "garland", from the shape of the circle-dance.
It may come as a surprise to many of our readers to discover that a carol was not originally a song but a dance. Specifically it was a circle-dance, danced to a single jig. (For our non-musical readers, a single jig goes DUM-dee, DUM-dee, DUM-dee, DUM.) Another surprise is that it was not necessarily associated with Christmas, either. There were Easter carols, too.
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