Christmas is just around the corner, as are the Nativity, Noël, and Yule, which are all names for the same holiday. The etymological origins of Christmas, Nativity, and Noël are pretty straightforward—but Yule is another ball of tinsel.
Christmas is from the Old English Cristes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”), the religious service that is celebrated on the birthday of Jesus Christ. A similar noun formation is seen in Michaelmas, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, celebrated on September 29. So this is the form to use if you want to keep the Christ in Christmas and the Michael in Michaelmas.
Nativity, meaning “birth,” is from the Latin nativus, from which the Spanish word for Christmas, Navidad, also springs. Noël, the French word for “Christmas,” which English has also adopted, is a variant from the same root, by way of Latin natalis (“birthday”) via Old French nael. This root is also seen in Natale, the common Italian word for “Christmas.”
Which brings us to Yule, and that is not so easily explained. Now seen in English mostly in the term Yuletide or as the Yule log, the word came directly from the Middle English yoole, in use from around 1450, which in turn came from Old English ġéol or ġéohol sometime before 900. All these terms refer to the holiday now called Christmas.
Before that the origin of Yule seems to be Old Norse Jól, which referred to a pagan winter festival. Here the meaning and origin become murky.
Some say Jól derived from hjól, the Old Norse word for “wheel,” referring to the season when the year’s “wheel” is at its low point, ready to rise again in the spring. The cycle, or wheel, of life was an important concept for Norse pagans, and the English word jolly, meaning “festive,” also originates with Jól.
Other, no doubt equally learned linguists, say that Jól’s origin is the Norse god Odin, known as jólfaðr (“father of the Yule”). Another theory is that the word stems from Old Norse ýlir, meaning something similar to “magic.”
Yet another linguistic camp points to Julius Caesar, from whose name came the Old English giuli, referring to a two-month winter season corresponding to the Roman December-January, which was a time of major feasts.
The truth is no one really knows the origin of Yule, so all we can hope to do is join the merry Yuletide chorus, after decking the halls with boughs of holly. Someone ought to deck the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, as well, in order to prevent such travesties as this:
As a general rule
You should celebrate Yule
On the twenty-fifth day of December.
But I’m afraid nowadays
Merchants find that it pays
To begin by the first of November.
There’s no doubt in my mind
That quite soon we will find
Christmas coming sometime in September.