Christmas Fact 10


German Advent Calendar: Fact of the Day

10. Dezember – Der Adventskalender

The Origin of the German Word for Christmas

The English word “Christmas” comes from the combination of Christ + mass, from Old English Cristes maesse (Christ’s Mass). The word Yule or Yuletide, often used for Christmas, comes from the Germanic Old English geol, the name of a winter solstice pagan festival.

Snowy Christmas night

A snowy Christmas in Graz, Austria. PHOTO: © Graz Tourismus, Harry Schiffer

In the Romance languages, the word for Christmas usually refers to the birth of the Christ Child: French Noël, Italian Natale and Spanish Navidad are all based on the Latin word natalis, birth.

The German word “Weihnachten” is Nordic/Germanic and has its origins in Middle High German: “wihe naht” (consecrated or holy night). The first written mention of the word “Weihnachten” was found in a document from 1170 (“ze den wihen nahten” = in den heiligen Nächten = in the holy nights). The Germanic tribes celebrated die heiligen Nächte at the winter solstice. By the way, the Czech word for Christmas, Vánoce, is derived from the German.

Why is the German word for Christmas plural? One theory is that the plural form (based on the MHD dative plural form wihen nahten mentioned above) comes from the original pagan Germanic “Raunächte” (“raw nights”), the long, cold winter nights of the winter solstice period, when the people of far northern Europe awaited the return of the sun. To celebrate the coming “rebirth” of the light, they used candles and evergreen wreaths, items that are still part of the Christmas observance today. It was not until the 12th century (mentioned above) that the “raw nights” became the Christian “blessed nights”: Weihnachten.

DEUTSCH: “…das Wort ‘Weihnachten’ stammt nicht aus der Christenkirche, sondern aus dem nordisch-germanischen Sprachgebrauch. In der Weihnachtszeit, nun starb die Sonne in der Eisesstarre des Winters. Aber nicht, um tot zu sein sondern um sofort wieder neu geboren zu werden und den Menschen ein neues Jahr mit allen Jahreszeiten zu schenken. So feierten sie dieses Fest der geweihten Nacht als Fest der Neugeburt des Lichts. Sie verglichen die Sonne mit einem neugeborenen, von Tag zu Tag größer und stärker werdenen Kind, das als Attribut der Sonne den Strahlenglanz des Lichtgestirns um sich trug.” – From www.asgardsrei.de (no longer online)

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