“Christmas” is a compound word originating in the term “Christ’s Mass,” derived from the Middle English Cristemasse; “Nativity”, meaning “birth”, is from Latin nātīvitās; in Old English, Gēola (“Yule”) referred to the period corresponding to January and December, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas; “Noel” (or “Nowell”) entered English in the late 14th century and is from the Old French noël or naël, itself ultimately from the Latin nātālis (diēs), “(day) of birth”.
Christmas is the most widely observed cultural holiday in the world. Here are nine things you should know about the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus:
1. No one knows what day or month Jesus was born (though some scholars speculate that it was in September). The earliest evidence for the observance of December 25 as the birthday of Christ appears in the Philocalian Calendar, composed at Rome in 336.
2. Despite the impression giving by many nativity plays and Christmas carols, the Bible doesn’t specify: that Mary rode a donkey; that an innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph (only that there was no room at the inn); that Mary gave birth to Jesus the day she arrived in Bethlehem (only that it happened “while they were there”); that angels sang (only that the “heavenly host” spoke and praised God); that there were three wise men (no number is specified) or that the Magi arrived the day/night of Jesus’ birth.
3. Rather than being born in a stable, Jesus was likely born in a cave or a shelter built into a hillside. The hills around Bethlehem were dotted with small caves for feeding and boarding livestock. The exact site of Jesus’ birth is unknown, but by the third century, tradition had established a probable cavern. Constantine’s mother, Helena, erected the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the small space.