December 20, 2006

Something About “Christmas”

2006 1535 page30 capnow how you’d hear certain expressions for years—even use them yourself; then one day, all of a sudden, you’re asking: “What does it mean? Where did it come from?”
That happened to me one day last October while reading an article in my local paper on the proliferation of awards programs in our society today. Why the awards explosion? Blame it on the Oscars, said the writer.
That set me thinking. What did he mean? And where did the two main terms in his article come from—“Academy Awards” and “Oscars”? Researching the item, I discovered that the first film festival took place in Venice back in 1932, and that today the most well-known film awards are organized and presented by the (American) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. These awards, said my source, are called “the Academy Awards” or “Oscars.”
Now I knew the source of the first term; but how about the “Oscars”? Why that word?
When I finally discovered the answer, I was reminded of other expressions I’d puzzled over in the past, thinking I’d find some profound meaning behind them. “Jacuzzi,” for example. You often hear the word at the end of a brag—as in: “Boy, wait till I tell you! The room had a free high-speed Internet connection, a balcony overlooking the river, and a Jacuzzi!” And the response from the listener is expected to be, “Wow!” But always in the back of my head the question was: So where did that sophisticated word come from?
2006 1535 page30Then one day, quite by accident, I found the answer. It’s merely the last name of the Italian-American immigrant, Roy Jacuzzi, who invented the in-tub whirlpool apparatus. Well, well! What if the guy’s last name was Smith or John? Would either name have worked as the label for his invention? Perhaps not. John, for sure, wouldn’t have—at least, not in the United States!
And just when you’re looking for some highfalutin derivation for the word “Alzheimer’s,” you discover it’s simply the name of the German physician (Alois Alzheimer) who in 1906 identified the disease. Nothing more exciting than that!
So about the “Oscars”? The word itself refers to the statues that Academy Awards winners receive. And its origin? Here’s what I found: “The statue was named by an academy librarian who said it reminded her of her Uncle Oscar.”1
Now, how about that!
Which brings me to the word “Christmas.” Common as the seasons, it needs no introduction. Even little children have it down pat. But where did it come from? The other terms we’ve discussed each sounded sophisticated, until we looked behind them. Suddenly they became common, pedestrian. Does “Christmas” have a similar problem?
The word reaches back to medieval times, and derives from the late Old English expression, Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, or “Christ’s mass”—“mass” here meaning festival. Hence “Christmas” refers, as one source puts it, to “the festival of the nativity of Christ.”
Some Adventists will always have issues with Christmas and its celebration. The givens are there: We don’t know the exact time of Jesus’ birth (one source asserts “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth”). There are suggestions of pagan connections—the celebration of the winter solstice, “a time when ancient peoples built great bonfires to give the winter sun god strength. . . .”2 And there is the shameless exploitation and ever-increasing commercialization of the season.
Still, something about the word—and the atmosphere that surrounds it—brings out the best in people. There’s a joy about this season: a generosity not seen at other times, a relinquishment of burdens we’ve carried though the year, a sense of expectation engendered by the songs of Christmas.
Even for the homeless, the lonely, the depressed, the bereaved, the Christmas story brings fresh hope. Something about the message, “peace on earth”—however distant the refrain—suggests that that holy birth had us in mind, that the Child who came means well for us. There’s something immensely personal in those ancient words: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given”—and to know that that Son is the “everlasting Father,” yours and mine! Yes, there’s just something about “Christmas.”
1World Book Encyclopedia, 1981, sv. “Motion Picture” (“Festivals and Awards”).
2Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 148.

Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist Review.