Many mainstream symbols and traditions that we have come to identify with Christmas have Greek and Christian roots.
Christmas comes from Greek
It is said that the word Christmas originates from the Olde English “cristes masse,” which means “Christ’s mass.” The name Christ, however, traces its origins to the Greek language, which was the language of the New Testament. The Greek form of the work was Χριστός, (Christos), which means, “anointed one.”
Popular abbreviation has Greek roots
Christmas is sort of a long word, so at some point, an abbreviation was devised: X-mas. The origin of X-mas is the use of the Greek letter “X” (chi), which is the first letter of the word Χριστός, “Christos,” meaning Christ. Early Christians all understood this, since Greek was the official language of the educated as well as that of the church. Later Christians didn’t understand the meaning, and found it disrespectful, so it never became widespread, though many use it today, not realizing why.
So the next time you say, “X-mas,” know that you aren’t being disrespectful – you’re using the early Christian shorthand!
Christmas Carols with Greek origin
The word “carol” originates from a Greek dance, called χοράυλην, (choravlein), meaning a dance accompanied by flute music. The dance became popular throughout Europe, particularly with the French, who replaced the flute accompaniment with singing. Carols were then sung several times a year. By the 1600s, carols were only sung at Christmastime. The most popular Christmas carols were written in the 1700s and 1800s.
The Greek carols, called kalanta, are traditionally sung by children on the day and evening before Christmas and New Year’s.
Twelve Days of Christmas
Orthodox Christians observe the “Dodekaimeron,” or 12 holidays between Christmas and Epiphany. These days are very special days. Some say this tradition of 12 days led to the idea for the creation of the popular Christmas song, “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
Candy Cane An Ode to Christian Roots
The delicious red and white striped candy we all know and love was created with religion in mind. The candies had been around for centuries, however, it wasn’t until the 1900s that they were painted red and white, and bent in the shape of a cane. One story traces back to a candy maker in Indiana, who wanted to tell the story of Christmas using candy as his symbol.
He incorporated several symbols of Christ’s love and sacrifice through the candy cane. He selected a plain white peppermint stick. The color white symbolizes the purity and sinless nature of Jesus. Then, he added three small stripes to symbolize the pain inflicted upon Jesus before His death on the cross. There are three of them to represent the Holy Trinity. He added a bold stripe to represent the blood Jesus shed for mankind.
He bent the candy for several reasons. When looked at with the crook on top, it invokes the image of a shepherd’s staff, which symbolizes Jesus as the shepherd of man. When turned upside down, it resembles the letter “J,” symbolizing the first letter in Jesus’ name. The candy maker made these special candy canes for Christmas, so all would remember what Christmas is all about.
Surely, there are more parallels from Greek and Christian lore to current tradition. Many of these stories are based on legend, so perhaps you have heard a different story. Nonetheless, they are fun stories to share at this time of the year. Share what you’ve heard below.
This article was originally written and published in 2006.