This time of the year, we greet each other with phrases like Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas, and on this site the warm cheers are definitively shared as well. But did you know that in no other language but English the word Christ is used to describe this festivity? And we don't even pronounce it as Christ! That's why Christmas is written as Crissmas here.
This web page is dedicated to exploring and explaining the word Criss as well as the word Christ together with various other Indo-European words used for this special celebration. There is a linkage with crest, creese, and cruise, as well as course and crisscross.
Writing Christ in a variety of words but then pronouncing it in two different ways is awkward and confusing. When talking about christening a child, we do not say Christ-ening, but crissening. Let's discover how there's a Greek meaning to Christ and a rather old-English meaning to our pronouncing that similar word as Criss. This will guide us into understanding the deeper meaning of Crissmas as well.
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In Dutch, the word Kerst appears to be a similar word to our word for Christ. Kerst is used in the Dutch language only in Kerstmis (their word for Christmas) and in the verb kerstenen (meaning to christen). Where we pronounce the word as criss, they say kerst. Like our criss, their kerst is not used anywhere else, not in a Christian
or in any non-Christian context (the word Christ in Dutch is Christus). If we can believe that Kerst is like our verb to christen, then the two English pronunciations Christ and Criss point to the former word coming from Greek (which we know as a fact), and the latter word as already contained within the original ancient English language dating back much longer than Christianity. Not only do the Dutch have a specific word only used for this time of the year and for consecrating someone, our pronunciation of Christ is awkward in exactly these two instances.
Close to all European languages are related and only a few languages — such as Basque and Hungarian — are from a different family. So we shouldn't be surprised to find relationships among our large Indo-European language group for the words Criss and Christ.
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Let's investigate the verb to christen itself a bit, for this act of consecration should hold a strong clue for explaining the use of the word Kerst, and for the conflicting pronunciations of Christ and Criss we find in English. Consecrating is seen as a distinct change placed on a person, helping him or her move to a better plane.
Intriguingly, a word associated with Christmas -when pronouncing Kerst as if it were English- shows the opposite transition of consecration. Get ready for a little roller-coaster, because the English word with the same sound does not describe a distinct change to a higher, but to a rather lower level; Kerst is easily pronounced as cursed.
To curse someone of course does not indicate something nice. But read on.
Both to christen and to curse show
a deeply-felt expression for wanting someone moved to another, different level to improve a situation. Let's dig in further and have a look at other languages that may help reveal the original
thought behind the English word Criss.
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Aid for the perspective of Criss as an act somewhat similar to cursing around this time of the year comes from the
Scandinavian languages where a delivery of a desperate expression for change
is known to coincide with this celebration. The Scandinavian word Jul, used for Christmas Time is incorporated into American English as well, where it is in use as an attribute for Christmas in Yuletide and Yule-log.
Though some have said the word Jul is linked to the word wheel, others point to the common Germanic root of to shout, for
instance, in German, where the sound is known as 'gell' (ghell) or in Dutch where it can be found as 'joel' (yool). Once we realize
the common root, the English word coming from the same origin is then easily found as well: to yell.
In Scandinavia, and possibly at one point in use with all Germanic tribes, yelling has been associated with this season: at the darkest time of the year, midwinter, supernatural
forces were thought to roam free. It was believed that the spirits of the dead would return to
their families. By cursing and shouting at the demons of darkness the Scandinavians
drove the unwanted spirits away, meanwhile celebrating the change towards longer days of light.
The Yule log is the indoor equivalent of the outdoor bonfire of Midwinter Eve. Also, the tradition to set off fireworks during the first minutes of the new year — or bang pots and pans — is based on the same idea of driving away the bad spirits with lots of noise, while the bonfire (and the green tree) reminds us of better, warmer days ahead.
In German, the Christmas word Weihnachten means 'Nights of Consecration.' A curiosity in this case is that Germans celebrate Christmas for just one night, and not during several nights as the plural word Weihnachten seems to indicate. Like various other European cultures, the Eve of Christmas is the main event of Weihnachten in Germany, with many folks attending first a celebration at a local church at night and then next sharing seasonal wishes at home with presents found under a beautifully lit-up tree. Still, the word Weihnachten tells us that the true transition of the celebration is actually one of several days, and not of just one night. Change can of course take place instantly in a person, but it may be wise to point out that Mother Nature tends to spread out her ever-changing self over a certain period of time. Nevertheless, consecration can be viewed as a clear expression of changing a person's destiny overnight as in a spiritual celebration.
With consecration, a pronouncement of betterment, someone
is verbally moved towards a higher level, naturally with the expectation that this person
will then become and remain holier than the average person. In this ritual, the communal desire of having our best sides come out in a single individual is expressed through the act of consecration. When successful, this person can lift all of us in spirit towards betterment — an act leading to a social position that is especially important for a community when enduring difficult times.
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The same desire to give expression to what is highest among us humans is found in other languages. The original Greek word Christ is said to be a translation of anointed. To anoint can mean to consecrate, especially when applying
oil as in a sacred rite. As such, Christ — the anointed — represents either the best of what is humanly possible, or manifests the desire for that what is better in us humans. Here, too, we see a communal desire to appoint someone as specially gifted, and who is then known to lead us towards betterment.
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In French, the word Noel is used for Christmas. Noel seems to be
linked more directly to the new (Novel), and to birth (Natal), with the latter idea most clearly expressed in the Spanish word Navidad; as such the
words Noel and Navidad express more the actual birth or the delivery itself than the deeply felt wish for that
delivery. Some have proposed the word Noel comes from the contraction
of novo and hel (new and sun), and while this would further support the
geo-astronomical change of the year, it is already sufficiently linked to the
word new to mark an ending of the old. France and Spain are closer
to the equator, so the change towards longer days with more light occurs simply as a fact, and long before
intense desperation sets in. People living at this sunny latitude may therefore just mention the change itself. Scandinavians on the other hand are not that lucky, and — with the longest night of the year not even close to being the moment of warming up again — this event may trigger a far deeper desire for the Scandinavians to express the wish
for what is better and to place a focus on what will be better, rather than just name the change like the French and the Spanish do and be done with it.
Let's focus on the word itself. There are many examples of how the word criss or even Christ as a variation on the word in other languages is linked to change. In Norwegian, the word Christy is
a ski-term for changing the direction of your skis. When going down a slope
you make many christies to get down. Looking back at the snow imprints, we can distinguish a wavy zigzag pattern. This is an important finding, especially since we all know how the Vikings influenced English.
A similar condition of change is
found with the European word creese (or kris) for a Malay dagger, where the sharp blade is formed in such a way that multiple back and forth changes are part of the design.
A crease in your shirt, meanwhile, is something that needs ironing out. And, if you wish, you can also see a decisive change in the word crisis, for instance,
in the course of a serious disease, portraying the worst possible moments
of insecurity we humans can experience between good and not-good-at-all. In other examples, you can recognize the pattern in a crest on top of a cock's
head, much like the crest of a mountain range, and the large-scale movements of a pleasant cruise that brings you from port to port. All these words indicate a change and particularly a wavy pattern
with gradual or abrupt changes of multiple back-and-forths across time and space.
One can recognize the word criss again in crescendo, where the mood is augmented with an increase in volume — at times leading to a climax, but not necessarily so. Come to think of it, something coarse is kind of bumpy, uneven, too. A wavy pattern, an up-and-down movement seems indeed linked to the word criss.
A last but most certainly not least of these words linked to Crissmas is
the term crisscross, which again shows the conflicting movement of direction
that often coincides with change, and one heck of a reason why Americans write
What may surprise you after looking at all these old European words for Crissmas
is that none of them uses the word Christ in them. Only the English language
has put the word Christ in Christmas, yet subsequently pronounces it as if it
were not there: we say Merry Crissmas. Did the English vulgarize the word Christmas and, over
the years, started to pronounce it differently? Probably not, Christ is a word that would be too venerated to first be vulgarized and then be popularized.
Can it can be said with absolute certainty that no one has ever pronounced Crissmas as Christmas? The verb, to christen, also doesn't sound like it was based on the word Christ, for people pronounce it as to crissen. But let's not forget that it also doesn't perfectly mimic the word cursing either, and the English word Christian does incorporate the vowel sound found with Criss. Let's look for an explanation, one related not to the spiritual world but to the more mundane world of language.
Many English words changed some would say dramatically in the
16th and 17th Century in form and writing; the English of that time felt their language was inferior to the great Romance languages, and somehow there was a need
to place their language on par with them. We all know how in English the word order got changed back then to mimic the Romance word order, and also how numbers were changed. For instance, one-and-twenty became twenty-one (though the numbers thirteen to nineteen remained the same). And "I am to the market been" changed into "I have been to the market."
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With Italy in high regards — the place known for rebirthing European culture — some of the English words were visibly changed to make them look more italianesque. An example
is the word island. Placing an S inside the English word was a quick way
to achieve a mediterranean look, even though the S was never
pronounced. The Italians use the word isola, while the Spanish say isla.
And, especially when the French write isle but don't pronounce the S (it is pronounced like our 'eel'), who would stop
the English from doing the same?
If this interests you: the word i-land is easily explained when you
know that the Dutch and Flat German word ei-land (similar pronunciation) translates into English as egg-land,
a piece of land that exists independently from the mainland, just like an egg exists independently outside the hen. You may not think much of linking the English word I to the Dutch word for egg, but this phenomenon actually happens the other way around as well, strengthening the link: the Dutch word for I is ik, a word that is quite close in pronunciation to the word egg, almost as much as the English word I is similar to the Dutch word ei. And within England, two words for egg existed in the 15th century: egg was spoken in the North and derived from Viking language, while 'eye' was used in the South for egg (plural eyren). Okay, before ending up with egg on our faces, let's get back on track and finish up on the upheaval of the English language in the 16th and 17th Century. Let's return to our search of understanding the word Criss better.
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The explanation we write Christmas, but pronounce it as Crissmas is truly simple. Given the fact that a historically
unparalleled linguistic commotion occurred mainly in the English language a change
that happened together with the incorporation of an astonishingly large amount of foreign
words and at a time when writing rules were far from being established — then why not write Christmas instead of Crissmas? It makes
the word look as Christian as possible, and severs it quickly from any possible pagan
The original English word appears to have been Criss and it could have been used for the moment of the year when we experience the deeply desired
change of direction from shorter days back to longer days of light. It could have been called Change-day or Zigzag-mas then, producing the exact same meaning.
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But there is more. Let's get back to the Greek word Christ, because there is something to mention other than it being a translation of 'anointed'. The word Eucharist points us in the right direction, and literally means Thanksgiving. When reviewing the word Christ, the actual Greek use is Char-ist, with char also visible in charity and charisma. Charity is a form of giving, while charisma points to a person we'd call out as gifted. All of a sudden another direction is given to the word in which the word Criss not only points to change, but also to giving. Naturally, giving is an act involving change as well. Do you see how the words care and caress may be part of the picture, too?
We therefore have an explanation why the French and the Spaniards do not use this word for Christmas, because they are already using the word in their daily lives. Saying grace can occur anytime of the year, and to say thank you in Spanish we would say gracia or gracias.
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So what it originally comes down
to for all these words, including the Greek word Christ, is the all familiar story of Crissmas, that celebrates the criss-course moment within the annual cycle at which
the days have been dark long enough already. Meaning: It is time for some change for
the better, something to be grateful for. We deeply long for what is better. We all do.
Despite the word Crissmas being claimed as a Christian holiday only, we should embrace the original meaning and celebrate what we all long for this time of the year as well. So, let's express
our good wishes for all in these dark days in which the sun is changing its course from bad to better. May the new year be a good year
for us, for our society, and for our world. And when the days are darker in more than one way, remember the original meaning of Crissmas. If you can't
take it any longer: go out and bark, holler, and shout for that much desired change. Don't be afraid, it is simple human nature to desire what is seen as better. And wouldn't that be a great connection with the word Christ as well? We now know that the word is linked to a change for the better.
If we find ourselves not having anything to light up this time of the year? Then holler for change. Who knows, there may even be a linguistic link between holy and howling (but we'll keep that explanation for another day). Sometimes letting it come out, just as we feel it, may be the only way to make
that change happen. So stand up and speak up, and when neither is possible, then howl. There's a good chance of feeling much better once it has come out, even before anything has actually changed for the better. For sure, our fellow folks will understand that change must be coming.
Even if you are not the howling kind, I'd like you to know that when we sit quietly and don't make a sound —
when the darkness seems all-encompassing — that darkness
will slowly make way for the light again soon. We do not have to be a believer
to understand that the light will really come back. Never give up, because we are on this globe together. And staying quiet or howling, what we all truly long for when a situation is truly bad is the movement towards that what is better — for ourselves and all of us. So, whatever your faith: