Since Christmas Day is later this week, I thought it might be fun to meander among a couple of word-constellations related to Christmas words—starting with the word Christmas.
A mass, as you know, is a eucharistic service. In Old English, Cristes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”) was the mass celebrating the birth of Christ. (Similar formations give us Michaelmas—the mass celebrating the Archangel Michael—and Candlemas—the mass in which the candles are blessed for the church year.) The prevailing theory seems to be that word mass derives from the Latin missa, meaning “sent,” from the words of dismissal at the end the Latin service: “Ite, missa est.” With those words, congregants are sent out (or, alternatively, the prayers have been sent out.) The word mission derives from the same Latin word.
I noticed in the etymonline entry that one of the Middle English spellings of mass was messe. Which got me to thinking about the English usage of the word mess to mean meal (mess hall, mess kit, mess sergeant, etc.) I often heard old-timers use mess to mean “a quantity sufficient to make a meal,” as in “a mess of fish” or “a mess of peas.” It was an intentionally imprecise measure: if you were sent out to pick a mess of peas, you would need to know how many people were coming over. I don’t hear this usage as often as I used to, though I still hear the phrase “a whole mess of…” to signify a large amount of something. I’m curious: do any of you still use mess to mean “enough for a meal”? If so, I’d like to hear about it.
Anyway…since mass is associated with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is a meal, I suspected there would be a link between mass and mess. Well, sort of. As it turns out, mess also derives from the Latin missa. The verb mittere, of which missa is a form, means “to send,” but also “to put” or “to place.” A missus in Latin was a course of a meal that was put or placed on the table. So, yes, mass and mess derive from the same Latin word, but for different reasons.
Speaking of meals and eating, let’s look at that word manger—a box that animals eat out of. If you took French, you know that manger is the verb “to eat.” If you are Italian, your Nonna is forever putting food in front of you and saying “Mangia! Mangia!” (and gesticulating enthusiastically, if the tv shows are to be believed).
So even though a manger was famously used as a crib once, it’s really just a feed-box.
But wait a minute…a crib is also a feed-box. Check out the first definition of crib in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: “a manger for feeding animals.” This, in fact, was the first use of crib in English.
How, then, did crib come to mean “baby bed”? According to the folks at etymonline, the meaning migrated “probably from frequent use in reference to the manger where infant Jesus was laid.” So when the kids at the Christmas pageant sing, “Away in the manger, no crib for a bed,” you can say, “Well, actually…the crib WAS his bed.” Watch this space for more tips on ways to annoy your friends and co-congregants.
It is my custom here at The Habit Weekly to reproduce my favorite Christmas poem in the last episode before Christmas. So here it is:
The House of Christmas
by G.K. Chesterton
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost—how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wife’s tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Merry Christmas, friends. Raise a glass to things that cannot be and, nevertheless, are.