by Janet Spencer

Most Christmas customs germinated from traditions connected to or borrowed from other festivals and celebrations, while others were made up on the spot. Here are the stories behind several somewhat perplexing Christmas habits.


Why the heck is it abbreviated as “Xmas”?

• The symbol ‘X’ comes from the Greek letter Chi, the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, which represents the hard “ch” sound as in “mach.” Chi is the first letter of the Greek word “Christós” meaning “anointed in oil” or “the anointed one,” a translation of the Hebrew term “messiah.” This word morphed into the current word “Christ” and was usually abbreviated as “X.”

• Dating back to the year 1521, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Church of England, and the Episcopalians all spelled the holiday as “Xtemmas” which was commonly shortened to “Xmas.”

• The word “mass” comes from the Latin “missa” meaning “to be sent.” The final words in a traditional Latin Catholic service are “Ite Missa est” meaning “You are sent out” or “You are dismissed to go spread the word.”

• The claims that the abbreviation “Xmas” is an attempt to “take the Christ out of Christmas” ignore centuries of common usage.

When you go a-wassailing, what the heck is THAT?

• The Old Norse term “ves heill” meant “good health” and was generally offered as a toast before drinking. “Wassail” is the name given to the mulled wine, spiced cider, or holiday ale typically used for such toasts. Originally the toasts were offered up to the fruit trees in orchards during celebrations around the winter solstice amid much singing, shouting, and revelry. Then it became common to go from house to house during the holiday season, singing at the doorstep until the homeowner invited everyone in for a drink of wassail. This was the beginning of the tradition of caroling.

When you’re enjoying some “Yuletide cheer” – what the heck is THAT?

• The Norse used to celebrate a winter festival called “jól” or “geol” which was pronounced “yule.” The Yuletide season referred to the month of hunting season, lasting from the end of November to the beginning of January. The “feast of Yule” was a three-day festival held over the Winter Solstice, marking the start of the new year.

What the heck are frankincense and myrrh?

• The book of Matthew in the New Testament is the only place where wise men are mentioned in the Bible. It doesn’t say how many wise men there were, only that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Other traditions mention 12 wise men.

• The word myrrh is Hebrew for “bitter.” Myrrh is a resin excreted by wounds to the bark of the Commiphora tree, with “Commiphora” meaning “gum-bearing” in Greek. Myrrh is the sap harvested from these North African trees. Myrrh is used as a perfume, as incense, and as a dressing to prepare bodies for burial. It is also used to anoint priests and kings.

•  There’s a deciduous tree in Africa called Boswellia sacra, after Scottish botanist Johann Boswell who first described the tree, plus the Latin word for “sacred.” Common names for this tree include the olibanum tree, meaning “oil of Lebenan” in Latin, and it’s also called simply “the incense tree.” The thin papery bark is easily peeled, and any wound to the inner bark results in a slow flow of aromatic sap which hardens into rough pebbles that can be burned as incense. The incense smells different depending on the age of the tree. The old French word for “highest quality” was “franc” giving us “frankincense.” Frankincense was burned in temples as a symbol of worship.

Why the heck do we bring in dead trees?

•  Evergreen boughs have long been considered symbols of everlasting life, at least in areas where evergreen trees grow. The Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia both claim to have invented the Christmas tree, with historical records dating back to the 1400s and 1500s indicating trees were paraded through town, decorated, and then burned. However, these activities were unrelated to Christmas and marked local winter festivals centered on winter solstice.

•  Historians feel that the true beginning of the Christmas tree tradition occurred in 1539 when a tree was mounted in Strasbourg Cathedral in Germany (now France). The practice became so popular so quickly that by 1554, officials in the city of nearby Freiburg began regulating the cutting of Christmas trees in the region. Trees were often decorated by hanging apples on the boughs, both red and green, symbolizing the apple in the Garden of Eden and leading to today’s red and green ornaments. When Germans immigrated to other countries, the Christmas tree tradition followed them. 

• In 1848, Queen Victoria of England, her German husband Prince Albert, and their children gathered around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, and an illustration of the event was published in newspapers worldwide. After that, Christmas trees became a ubiquitous symbol of the holiday around the world. 

Who the heck was Good King Wenceslaus?

•  Wenceslas (Slavic for “greater glory”) was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in the year 907 A.D. His grandfather, and then his father, converted to Christianity and ruled the region wisely. His father died when Wenceslas was only 13, leaving a power vacuum. His mother murdered his grandmother in a bid for power, and Wenceslas later banished her for it. When Wenceslas came of age, the kingdom was split in half, with equal parts going to Wenceslas and his brother Boleslaus. Boleslaus grew greedy and killed his brother in the year 935 A.D. when Wenceslas was 28 years old. Despite the murder, Boleslaus ruled Bohemia competently until his death at the age of 57.

• Wenceslas was canonized immediately upon his death, achieving sainthood based on a miracle that happened the day after Christmas, the feast of Saint Stephen. According to the legend, Wenceslas saw a pauper struggling in the snow. He ordered a servant to gather supplies so they could go to the man’s aid. The servant bogged down in the snow drifts until Wenceslas ordered him to walk behind in his footprints. The servant felt miraculous warmth arising from Wenceslas’ footprints in the snow which restored him. A poem written about this was set to music and became a popular holiday hymn: “Good King Wenceslas went out on the Feast of Stephen / When the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even.”

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