Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Eng. Christmas and Sp. Navidad

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Eng. Christmas and Sp. Navidad

The origins of Christmas

Christmas is another Christian celebration that was made to coincide with earlier pagan celebrations, those that ultimately have to do with the winter solstice (Sp. solsticio de invierno) at the end of the month December in Roman calendars such as ours.[1] The winter solstice is a sky event that takes place around December 21 which signals the shortest day (and longest night) of the year in the northern hemisphere, and the longest day and shortest night (and longest day) in the southern hemisphere, and is thus the counterpart of the summer solstice (Sp. solsticio de verano) that takes place around June 21. The solstices are related to the varying inclination of the earth towards the sun, as our planet pivots once a day and wobbles once a year on its yearly way around the Sun.[i]

As we saw earlier, there is no reference to the exact birthday for Jesus (Christ) in Christian scripture, but in the 4th century, the Western Christian (Catholic) Church, based in Rome, the center of the Roman Empire, decided to celebrate his birthday on December 25. The reason could not have been other than to make it coincide with  a couple of the traditional Roman celebrations related to the winter solstice. One of them was the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, ‘the ancient Roman festival of Saturn in December, a period of unrestrained merrymaking’ (COED). The Roman Saturnalia festivities (Sp. saturnales) went on for seven days, from December 17 to December 23, and were extremely popular.[ii] These celebrations, which included gift swapping, were introduced around 217 BCE.

According to some 18th and 19th centuries’ scholars, Saturnalia was not the only Roman festivity that inspired the setting up of December 25 as the birth of Jesus by Christians in the 4th century CE. It seems that in the 3rd century, 274 CE, Roman emperor Aurelian set up the cult of Sol Invictus ‘Unconquered or invincible Sun’ to be celebrated on December 25, as the official sun god of the Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers, though the adoration of the Sun god goes back to at least the early 2nd century CE. Lat. sol, the source of Sp. sol, meant of course ‘Sun’, and the epithet invictus ‘unconquered, invincible’ had been used before, since the 3rd century BCE, for Roman deities such as Jupiter, Mars, Hercules, Apollo, and Silvanus. Some believe that the cult of Sol Invictus was part of the Mithraic mysteries, or Mithraism (Sp. mitraísmo), a Roman mystery religion that was popular between the 1st and 4th centuries CE centered on the god Mithras (Sp. Mitra), which was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian divinity Mithra.[iii] At any rate, the festival of Natalis InvictiDies Natalis Solis Invicti ‘Day of the birth of the unconquered sun’was held on 25 December, and it was a general festival of the Sun, not specific to, but probably related to, the Mysteries of Mithras.[iv] One other factor that was probably involved in the choice of the December date as the Jesus' birth date was the (unsubstantiated) claim made by some Christian scholars in the early 3rd century that Christ had been conceived on March 25, which is exactly 9 months before December 25.[v]

Figure 174: Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet[vi]

As we said earlier, Christmas (Sp. Navidad) or the Feast of the Nativity (Sp. fiesta de Navidad) has been celebrated as the birth of Christ since the early 4th century in the Roman Empire, which adopted Christianity as the state religion in 323 CE, ten years after becoming an acceptable or respectable religion in the Empire. The customs associated with this religious celebration are a mixture different themes of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular origins.

Eng. Christmas

The English name for the celebration of Christ’s birth is Christmas, pronounced [ˈkʰɹɪs.məs], with a silent t. This word comes from the Old English phrase equivalent to Modern English Christ’s Mass, which is attested in Middle English as Cristemasse, from an earlier Crīstesmæsse (1038) or Cristes-messe (1131). The word mass (mæsse in Old English), which is cognate with semi-learned Sp. misa 'mass', comes from Vulgar Latin *messa, from Church Latin missa, which came to be the name given to the Christian eucharistic service, the Western Christian (Catholic) Church’s celebration of one of its sacraments, the Eucharist. This Lat. missa was a noun derived by conversion from the feminine past participle of the verb mittĕre ‘to send (off)’. The original meaning of this derived noun was something like ‘dismissal’.[vii] Presumably, the name of this celebration comes from the last words uttered during the service, which were Ite, missa est ‘Go, it is the dismissal’. Protestant churches that do not celebrate the Eucharist, typically avoid the use the word mass for their services, although it is used in the Anglican and other Protestant traditions to some extent.

The celebration of Christmas after the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century CE replaced traditional, pre-existing pagan solstice-related celebrations, variously known as midwinter, Yule or Yuletide (= Yule time), and later also Christmastide. Yule celebrations were the Germanic pre-Christian feast and celebration that took place before the harshest part of winter started.[viii] Yule is still the traditional name for Christmas in the Scots language, the Germanic language of the Scottish Lowland, and cognates of this word are also used in other Germanic languages, such as Jul in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.[ix] In pre-Christian times, the term Yule referred to the two-month-long midwinter season (December and January), but in Christian times, the term Yule typically refers to the twelve days of Christmas between December 24 and January 6.

As we saw, Eng. mass is the descendant of the Vulgar Latin word *messa and it is attested in English since the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianization (in Old English it is attested as mæssa or mesa, cf. Modern French messe and Modern Spanish misa). This word was also used in compounds to mean something like celebration or commemoration, as in the word Christmas, but also in the word Hallowmas  or Hallowmass, the Christian feast day honoring all the saints since 835 AD, also known as All Saints’ Day, Allhallows (see Part II, Chapter 48, §

Sp. Navidad ~ Eng. Nativity, and related words

The word for Christmas in Spanish is Navidad, though there is a fancy, learned version of the word Navidad, namely Natividad, cognate of Eng. Nativity (see below), though it is quite rare. The word Navidad comes from an earlier nadvidad, from an earlier unattested *nadividad, a semi-learned descendant of Lat. nātīvĭtas, or actually of its accusative wordform nātīvĭtātem (nāt‑īv‑i‑tāt‑em), a noun that meant ‘birth’ and ‘the circumstances of one’s birth’, but which came to refer to the birth of Jesus (Christ). 

Lat. nātīvĭtātem






Sp. navidad

Lat. nātīvĭtās was derived from the stem nātīv‑ of the adjective nātīvus/a (nāt‑īv‑us) ‘born, that has arisen from or by birth; produced by nature [opposite of man-made or artificial], etc.’ (L&S). This adjective was derived from the stem (root) nāt‑ of the past participle nātus (gnātus in early Latin) of the deponent verb (g)nāscī ‘to be born’, whose principal parts were present tense nāscor ‘I am born’, present infinitive nāscī ‘to be born’, perfect active nātus sum ‘I was born’. The Latin verb nāscī is ultimately the source of Sp. nacer ‘to be born’, though there was a change made to this verb along the way in Vulgar Latin, which changed the deponent nāscī to a third conjugation *nascĕre.

The Latin verb (g)nāscī descends ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *ǵenh₁‑ that meant ‘to give birth, beget; with derivatives referring to aspects and results of procreation and to familial and tribal groups’ (AHDIER). Lat. (g)nāscī is cognate with the Ancient Greek verb γεννᾰ́ειν (gennáein) ‘to beget, give birth to’, which is derived from the Greek noun γέννᾰ or γέννᾱ (génna or génnā) that meant ‘origin, offspring, descent’ and in Medieval Greek ‘childbirth, family, etc.’, cf. Modern Greek Χριστούγεννα (Christoúgenna) ‘Christmas’. The passive participle (g)nātus descends from the Proto-Indo-European word *ǵn̥h₁tós ‘produced, given birth’ derived from this same root. There is a doublet (cognate) of Lat. (g)nātus, namely Lat. genitus/a, an adjective which is a later creation, perhaps under the influence of Greek cognates, whose meaning is ‘begotten, engendered, produced’, cf. Eng. genital ~ Sp. genital, Eng. congenital ~ Sp. congénito/a. We can recognize the same Proto-Indo-European root in numerous English-Spanish cognates that come from Greek or Latin or that were created in the modern languages out of Greek or Latin word parts, such as Eng. gene ~ Sp. gen, Eng. generate ~ Sp. generar, Eng. generation ~ Sp. generación, Eng. genial ~ Sp. genial, Eng. engine ~ Sp. ingenio, Eng. gender ~ Sp. género, etc. Even the Spanish word gente ‘people’ descends from a word that contained this root in its origin.

To derive the adjective nātīvus, the first/second declension adjective-forming suffix ‑īv‑ was added to the passive participle stem nāt‑, a suffix that formed deverbal adjectives (adjectives derived from verbs) indicating relatedness to the verb’s action. This nātīvus is, of course, the source of the adjective cum noun cognates Sp. nativo ~ Eng. native. To derive Lat. nātīvĭtās from nātīvus, a further suffix ‑ĭtāt‑ (nominative ‑ĭtas) was added to the stem nātīv‑, a suffix that typically formed abstract nouns indicating a state of being, though in this case the meaning of the noun is not necessarily abstract, since this Latin word can refer to a specific birth, not just the abstract act or event of being born.

Lat. nāt‑ + īv‑


nātīv‑us/a + ‑ĭtāt‑



One might wonder why Latin didn’t turn the passive participle nātus into a noun to name the act of being born, i.e. ‘birth’, as it did with other verbs to name those verbs’ actions. Presumably, this did not happen because nātus had already been turned into nouns with different meanings. Thus, in addition to being a passive participle, Lat. nātus was also a fourth declension noun with meanings such as ‘son, birth, age, years’, and said of plants, ‘growth, growing’, as well as a second declension noun meaning ‘son’ (and in the plural, ‘children’). Also, note that in addition to being a passive participle and a noun, Lat. nātus could also be used as a first/second-declension adjective meaning ‘born, descended (from), etc.’

Besides Eng. native ~ Sp. nativo, English and Spanish have other cognates that come from Latin words that contained this Latin passive participle’s stem (g)nāt‑, such as the following: Eng. nation ~ Sp. nación, Eng. cognate ~ Sp. cognado (ant its patrimonial doublet cuñado), Eng. innate ~ Sp. innato, Eng. natal ~ Sp. natal, Eng. natural ~ Sp. natural. Note that in some cases the ‑t‑ of this Latin root has changed in the spelling of the Spanish words, to ‑c‑ or ‑d‑, in patrimonial or semi-learned words, though not in learned ones that were borrowed from Latin written sources in more recent times. English typically maintains the original Latin spelling in words borrowed directly from Latin (except for sometimes the Latin words’ endings or inflections, which typically get adapted), though in cases in which a Latin word was borrowed through French and it was patrimonial in that language, the spelling may be more different.

From the noun nātus, Latin derived the third declension adjective nātālis by means of the suffix ‑āl‑ (nāt‑āl‑is) that meant ‘of or belonging to one's birth’. However, this adjective was also converted into a noun meaning ‘birthday’ and ‘anniversary’, among other things. The word’s plural, nātāles was used in post-Augustan Latin with the meaning ‘birth, origin, lineage, extraction, descent, family’ (L&S). In earlier times, a Spanish noun nadal, derived from this Latin noun, was used with the meaning ‘Christmas day’, though this use is now obsolete. The word nadal in Catalan and Occitan still has the meaning ‘Christmas’. Actually, this use of nadal descends from a clipping of the Latin phrase nātālis diēs Dominī ‘birthday of the Lord’. In French, the very same Latin word nātālis became the word Noël, through a number of sound changes, a word that to this day also means ‘Christmas’. The French word Noël is pronounced [nɔˈɛl] in Modern French and it is first attested in the 12th century (an earlier spelling from early in the century is nael). This word is familiar to Spanish speakers from the loanword Papá Noel (Fr. Papa Noël or Père Noël) that refers to a Santa Claus figure borrowed from French culture in recent times, also known in English as Father Christmas.[x] The figure of a Father Christmas arrived late in Spanish-speaking countries and was never a major one, though in recent times it has been reborrowed from US culture through the figure of Santa Claus. However, an analogous character was part of Spanish culture at different times, one known as Viejito Pascuero or San Nicolás ‘Saint Nicholasa’.[xi] (Note that Spanish also has a learned doublet of nadal, namely natal, cognate of Eng. natal, which is used most commonly in the derived words prenatal ‘pre-birth’ and posnatal ‘post-birth', cf. Eng. prenatal and postnatal.)

English has borrowed the Latin word nātīvĭtas to refer to the birth of Christ, among other things, which is nativity [nəˈtʰɪvɪɾi] in Modern English. The word is first attested around the year 1200 and it came through Old French nativité, itself a loanword from Medieval Church Latin, first attested in the 12th century (LGR). The French word was used primarily to refer to the birth of Christ. According to English dictionaries, Eng. nativity means first of all ‘the occasion of a person’s birth’ (COED) or ‘birth, especially the place, conditions, or circumstances of being born’ (AHD). Dictionaries also tell us that this word has a secondary sense, one that is capitalized as Nativity, which refers to either ‘the birth of Jesus’, ‘a representation, such as a painting, of Jesus just after birth’, or ‘Christmas’ (AHD). However, this word is rarely used to refer to Christmas, other than in the phrases Nativity scene and Nativity play. The Spanish word for Nativity scene is nacimiento (see below). Another word for it is belén, from the name of the town, Belén in Spanish and Bethlehem in English, in which Jesus was supposedly born. A Nativity play is not common in the Spanish-speaking world, but it can be described (rather than called) representación (infantil) de la Natividad (VOX) or auto de Navidad (OSD).

By the way, Latin did have another word for the meaning ‘birth’ besides nātīvĭtas, namely nāscentĭa. This noun was derived from the regular stem nāscent‑ of the present participle nāscēns ‘being born, begotten, etc.’ of the same verb (g)nāscī ‘to be born’. It was derived by means of the suffix ‑ĭ‑(a) that formed feminine abstract nouns from present participle stems (also from adjectives and occasionally, nouns). Lat. nāscentĭa is the source of the word that means ‘birth’ in French, namely naissance [nɛˈsɑ̃s], which is related to the verb naître ‘to be born’, a verb that descends from Vulgar Latin *nascĕre, derived from the classical Latin verb nāscī ‘to be born’ that we have already seen, and which is also the source of Sp. nacer ‘to be born’.

Lat. nāsc‑ + ‑ent‑


nāscent‑em + ‑ĭ‑



Note that English has borrowed the Latin present participle nāscēns, from its accusative singular wordform nāscentem, giving us the English adjective nascent [ˈneɪ̯sənt] (in Britain it can also be pronounced [ˈnæsənt]), which means primarily ‘just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential’ (COED), as in a nascent democracy (OALD) or her nascent singing career (MWC). English borrowed this word directly from written Latin in the early 17th century. Spanish has a cognate of this word, namely the word naciente, which is the present participle of the verb nacer ‘to be born’, which literally means ‘being born’. It is formed from the root nac‑  of the verb nacer and the present participle suffix ‑iente associated with second and third conjugation verbs (it is ‑ante for first conjugation verbs). The word naciente is used with the same sense that Eng. nascent has (synonyms: emergente, incipiente), though it is a fancy word and quite rare. Even more rarely, Sp. naciente can be used as an adjective to refer to the rising sun, in the expressions sol naciente ‘rising sun’ and tierra del sol naciente ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, which is ‘a poetic name for Japan’ (OAD). Even more rare is the use of naciente as a noun meaning ‘East’, as a synonym of estelevante, and oriente.

The noun Navidad does not mean ‘birth’ in Spanish and is thus not used to refer to regular births. It is rather the name of the celebration of Jesus’ birth, pretty much like Eng. Nativity (pace what English dictionaries say about this word). Spanish speakers who do not know the word’s history probably do not make a connection between the word Navidad and words meaning ‘birth’ or ‘to be born’. Interestingly, the Spanish verb meaning ‘to be born’ is nacer, the patrimonial Spanish descendant of Lat. nāscī, from which Lat. nātīvĭtās is derived, though it is probably safe to say that Spanish speakers do not recognize the root nac‑ of nacer in the word navidad, due to the sound changes that took place in both words through time. As we saw, Sp. nacer does not descend directly from Lat. nāscī but rather from a Vulgar Latin verb derived from nāscī, namely nascĕre.

The main word meaning ‘birth’ in modern Spanish is nacimiento, a noun derived from the same root nac‑ of the verb nacer by means of the suffix ‑miento that descends from Late Latin ‑mentum (ultimately derived from Latin -menta), a cognate of Eng. ‑ment (e.g., Eng. movement ~ Sp. movimiento). Note that the ‑i‑ is a linking vowel that was used in Latin. In Spanish, this suffix forms nouns from verbs that name the action or process (nac‑i‑mient‑o). There are numerous examples of such derivations, e.g. aburrimiento ‘boredom’ from aburrir ‘to bore’, conocimiento ‘knowledge’ from conocer ‘to know’, etc. (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §

The word nacimiento is also used in Spanish for a representation of the birth of Christ or Nativity, which in English is also known as a Nativity Scene. In addition, the word nacimiento can refer to the hatching of birds and it can also be used figuratively, to refer to a river’s source, a place, as in el nacimiento del río Ebro ‘the Ebro River’s source or place of origin’.

There was another word in Old Spanish that meant ‘birth’, one that now is only used in some dialects and registers of Spanish, namely nacencia. This word is first attested in the 13th century but presumably is only in common use today in a few (rural) places like Asturias (Spain) and Cuba (DCEH). This word is obviously a descendant of the Latin word nāscentĭa that we just saw that meant ‘birth’. The current edition of the Academies’ dictionary (DLE) tells us that the first meaning of nacencia is ‘action and effect of being born’, without qualifications as to how it is used (register) or where (dialect). The earlier edition of the Spanish Academy’s  dictionary (DRAE) had that as the 3rd sense of the word, with the qualification that it was archaic (ant.) and vulgar (U. c. vulg.). Another meaning for nacencia found in this dictionary is ‘origin, lineage or family of someone’, which was the first sense in the previous edition of the dictionary and is the second one in the current edition.[2] Both dictionaries have a third sense for this word, namely ‘boil, furuncle’, which the earlier edition told us was a popular or colloquial word (pop.) and the current edition tells us it is obsolete (desus.). The earlier edition defined this last meaning as ‘lump or tumor that without obvious cause arises anywhere in the body’, whereas the new edition simply gives the synonym forúnculo in the definition.[3]

The adjective related to the noun Navidad is navideño/a (navid‑eñ‑o), as in celebración navideña ‘Christmas celebration’, misa navideña ‘Christmas mass’, or comida navideña ‘Christmas dinner’. The Spanish suffix ‑eño/a is used to form adjectives from nouns to indicate relatedness or origin, as in brasileño/a ‘Brazilian’ from Brasil ‘Brazil’ and ‎trigueño/a ‘similar to wheat; wheat colored’, from trigo ‘wheat’. This suffix descends from either Latin ‑ēn‑us, which is cognate of ‑ān‑us, or from ‑ĭne‑us (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §

Other words

As we have seen before, many celebrations that got started in the eastern Mediterranean region start the night before what to us is the day of the celebration. The reason for this is that in those cultures the day ended after dusk and not at midnight as it does for us (and for the Romans for that matter). Christmas is no exception and thus for Christians, Christmas starts on the evening of December 24. That whole day is known in English as Christmas Eve, using the word eve that is related to the word evening (for more on the word eve, see § The Spanish of Christmas Eve is Nochebuena, a noun derived from the phrase noche buena, lit. ‘good night’. In many Spanish-speaking countries, Christmas Eve and the family evening meal associated with it is a more important celebration than Christmas Day, though many countries celebrate both. For religious (Catholic) people, the evening’s culminating point is a mass that takes place at midnight, which is known as misa del gallo  (also misa de gallo in some dialects) ‘Midnight Mass’, literally ‘rooster mass’. The expression goes back to the Romans, who referred to the time the day starts (midnight for them, like for us, half way between noon and the next noon) as ad galli cantus ‘when the rooster crows’ (Sp. al canto del gallo). Dictionaries define Nochebuena as ‘night of Christmas Eve’, and the day before Christmas goes by the name of día de Nochebuena, lit. ‘Christmas Eve’s day’. However, it is common for the noun Nochebuena to be used to refer to the whole day before Christmas, not just the evening/night, much like Christmas Eve is used in English to refer to the whole day as well.[4]

[1] Our Western calendar is a slightly modified version of the Julian calendar set up by Julius Caesar in Roman times, in 46 BCE. The modification was done under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which reduced the length of the average year from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days to make it more accurate. This resulted in the addition of 13 days to the calendar. Some countries didn’t adopt the changes until the 20th century and some people still use the same Julian calendar that the Romans used.

[2] DRAE 22e has: ‘nacencia (Del lat. nascentĭa, nacimiento). 1. f. Origen, linaje o familia de alguien. 2. Bulto o tumor que sin causa manifiesta nace en cualquier parte del cuerpo. 3. ant. Acción y efecto de nacer. U. c. vulg.’ (DRAE). DLE 23e has: ‘nacencia Del lat. nascentia.  1. f. Acción y efecto de nacer.  2. f. Origen, linaje o familia de alguien.  3. f. desus. forúnculo' (DLE).

[3] María Moliner’s dictionary gives two synonyms for this sense: landre and nacida. The latter is a noun derived from the feminine version of the past participle of the verb nacer. The DLE tells us that nacida is an obsolete word for forúnculo ‘boil’, but that the masculine nacido is a synonym of this word that is still in use, presumably not as a general word in all dialects (but, as all too often, the DLE does not specify which ones).

[4] Cf. ‘Noche de la vigilia de Navidad’ (DLE).

[vi] Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saturnalia_by_Antoine_Callet.jpg, Author: Themadchopper, Antoine-François Callet; Description: Saturnalia by Antoine Callet; Date: 2014/1783; Source/Photographer http://elgloboenlaluna.blogspot.com/2012/12/felices-saturnalias.html (2020.12.28)

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