Fast Mash

  • Christmas blends and clips Christ’s mass; earlier forms include Old English’s Cristes mæsse
  • Christ, the title of “anointed” given to Jesus of Nazareth, comes from a Greek translation (khristos) of the Semitic messiah; ultimately, the epithet is from a Greek verb, khriein, meaning to “rub” or “smear” oil, a custom reserved to consecrate prophets, priests, and kings
  • This Greek verb is from the Proto-Indo-European root *ghrei-, meaning “rub”; cream, character, crisscross, grit, grime, and gruel are related
  • Mass may well be from a form of the Latin mittere (send; think mission) used to dismiss a Eucharistic service  

“Merry Christmas.” How often do we utter this phrase without a thought for its “true meaning”? No, I’m not talking about cheer or charity. I’m talking about etymology. And whether or not you celebrate the holiday, the word Christmas still holds surprises.


The word Christmas is a like a gift whose packaging does little to conceal the present inside: It joins Christ, as in Jesus of Nazareth, and mass, as in the Eucharistic service. But a good word origin is the gift that keeps on giving. (No joke: I asked for Anatoly Liberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology for Christmas.)

I’m pretty sure most people in predominantly Christian cultures have at one early time or another thought Christ to be Jesus’ last name. But Christ is a title or epithet, given to Jesus of Nazareth by his followers after his death. Through the Latin transcription of Christus, Christ comes from the Greek, Χριστός, or khristόs, “the anointed one,” a translation of Hebrew’s mashiah, which gives us messiah. At the root of khristos is the Greek verb khriein, or “to rub” or “anoint,” stemming from the Proto-Indo-European *ghrei-, or “to rub.”

To put it way too simply, priests, prophets, and kings, particularly in Judaic history, were anointed with oil to symbolize the person’s divine appointment and purpose. To his disciples, then, Jesus the Christ was Jesus the One Anointed by God to…do his Jesus stuff. (I jest. I had too much Catholic schooling not to have a sense of humor about all of this.) I should say: Anointed as a savior, deliverer, liberator. As the Online Etymology Dictionary observes, “the Latin term drove out Old English Hæland ‘healer, savior,’ the preferred descriptive term for Jesus.”

I don’t know about you, but Christ was my dad’s preferred descriptive term for anything but Jesus.

In Catholic traditions, among many others, the chrism names this holy, anointing oil and derives from the same Greek roots. It’s also known as myrrh. Yes, that myrrh–which, for most of us, is a word that exists only as a holiday factoid or religious trivia. But historically, myrrh–aromatic resin deriving from a Semitic root for “bitter”–was a highly valuable ingredient for oils, incense, and medicine. Indeed, ancient Egyptians even used it to embalm mummies.

And frankincense? It’s also an aromatic resin, and it derives from the French franc (noble, true, of highest quality, related to English’s own “frank”) and encens (incense).

“Smear” Campaign

The Three Magi may have given gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the Indo-European root of Christ–*ghrei-, “to rub”–also gives us cream, character, grime, grit, and gruel.

Cream, blending a Latin/Gaulish term and Greek’s khrisma (unguent), is scraped off the top of milk. Also from the Greek, character originally referred to “pointed stake,” an “engraved mark,” or an “imprint on the soul” (or branded on a felon), and served as a metaphor for a distinguishing feature. Everything from chrome to chromosome features a Greek root for khroma, meaning “color,” particularly in reference to the skin, ultimately related (by some logic) to *ghrei-. And perhaps more intuitively is grit (tiny, grounded up rocks); grime (with roots in meanings for “dirt” and “to smear”); and gruel (originating in a sense of fine, ground-up meal).

FInally, we have crisscross, that hashed pattern of intersecting lines. The Online Etymology Dictionary grinds it down better than I can:

1818, from Middle English crist(s)-crosse “Christ’s cross” (late 15c.), earlier cros-kryst (late 14c.), “referring to the mark of a cross formerly written before the alphabet in hornbooks. The mark itself stood for the phrase Christ-cross me speed (‘May Christ’s cross give me success’), a formula said before reciting the alphabet” [Barnhart]. Used today without awareness of origin.

A hornbook is a primer for young children, especially a textbook meant to teach children how to learn the alphabet. Look closely in the top left corner of these historic primers, and you’ll see that original crisscross:

Now I know my ABC’s. Image courtesy of


I always thought that mass referred to the gathering of people for a religious service. Indeed, that’s a different kind of mass. This mass, passing through Old English’s mæsse, is not concerned with the coming together but the sending away. On this, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology is delightfully discursive:

L. missa is a verbal sb….from pp. stem miss- of ‘mittere’ send, send away (cf. MISSION); it is first recorded from IV…and in the early centuries is applied to various religious services, but pre-eminently to the Eucharist; the primary meaning is disputed, but many hold that its application to a service results from a transference of meaning in phr. such as ‘Ite, missa est’ Depart, it is the dismissal (i.e. the service is at an end), ‘Et missae fiant’ And let the dismissals be made (at the end of an office).

So, from the Latin, mass is likely sent off from the same root as mission, cousin to words like permit and promise or commit and emission.

As for Christmas’ story in English, the Oxford Dictionary of English is delightfully concise:

festival of the nativity of Jesus Christ, 25 Dec. Late OE. Cristes mæsse, ME. cristes masse…, cristesmesse,…cristmasse; i.e. ‘mass’, i.e. festival (MASS) of CHRIST.

Aside from being a good example of the forces of economy in language change, It seems that regular capitalization of Christ and the “restored” spelling using ch– came later. Mass lives on in the sense of “festival,” Oxford notes, in, likely now obscure to many (except some perhaps to my UK counterparts), in Candlemas, Childermas, Hallowmas, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, among others.

In the interest of all the better things you have to do this holiday season, my readers: Ite, missa est. And happiest holidays! The Mashed Radish will be back in 2014.

m ∫ r ∫


7 thoughts on “christmas

  1. Happy Christmas to all the Cincinnati Kellys. And John, ask your father how much of the old Latin Mass he can still recite from memory? Ho ho ho!! Uncle Tom


  2. I *specifically* remember the time (as geeks often do) when I was little and the construction of Christmas dawned on me: “Oh yeah Christ … and mass! Oh yeah!”


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