Feliz Navidad — almost


We’re three days away from a holiday that English speakers call Christmas, literally ‘Christ’s mass’ or ‘Christ’s festival.’ Although biblical scholars have determined that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on that date, Spanish emphasizes his birth in its name for the holiday, Navidad. That’s a shortened form of natividad, which, like its English cognate nativity, is based on Latin natus ‘born.’ From natus came the adjective natalis ‘pertaining to birth,’ which has become our shared adjective natal. In Christianity, the Latin expression natalis (dies) ‘birth day’ came to be associated especially with the birth of Jesus. As Latin evolved in Gallia to Old French, the adjective, carrying the full weight of the phrase, evolved to the noun nael and then noel. English now uses the modern French Noël (often without the two dots that show the word is pronounced in two syllables rather than one) as a name for Christmas or the Christmas season. Also from Latin natalis came the girl’s name that exists in the versions Natalia, Natalya, and Natalie. And Noël has served in English as a male name, for example that of the playwright Noël Coward.

But back to nativity. Noah Webster defined the word this way in his dictionary of 1828: ‘birth; the coming into life or the world,’ and he went on to note that “the feast of Christmas is observed in memory of Christ’s nativity.” From Navidad—which serves in Spanish as a female name—came the adjective navideño ‘pertaining to Christmas.’ English, with its great flexibility to put a word to work as a different part of speech, uses the noun Christmas as an adjective, so regalo navideño corresponds to Christmas present. English can also go the extra step and extend Christmas by adding a suffix that is overtly adjectival; the result is Christmassy, meaning ‘typical of Christmas, appropriate for Christmas.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Dec 22, 2014 @ 21:08:25

    I first read that “Christmassy” is overly adjectival, rather than overtly adjectival. People who sprinkle their conversation with “Christmassy” can tend toward extravagant celebrations and decorations, so that might account for my mis-reading.

    I often notice the word spelled “Christmasy.” I did a Google fight, and turned up 283,000 results for “Christmassy” and 202,000 for “Christmasy.” That’s about as evenly split as any result I’ve seen.

    There’s one Navidad you didn’t mention: Texas’s Navidad River. There even was a Wild Man of the Navidad, who still pops up in stories in those parts.

    And then there’s this, from the Chicago Manual of Style.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 23, 2014 @ 07:27:29

      Your misreading of overtly as overly isn’t overtly over the top, given your experience with people who say Christmassy a lot. As for the spelling Christmasy, that’s what I was inclined to use, but I did a little searching and found that most dictionaries have the -ss-, so I went with that. Coincidentally, Christmassy re-creates the mass that is etymologically a part of Christmas.

      I didn’t think to mention the Navidad River, so thanks for adding it. I checked to see where that river is, and I found that it comes from two branches near Schulenberg and flows to Lavaca Bay in your area. I noticed that the river has been dammed to create Lake Texana, and in the process I saw that there’s a Lake Texana State Park—at least until I looked further and found that it’s no longer a state park. Then I found a list at


      of over 30 parks, historic sites, etc., that the state has given up control of. Sounds like Texas Parks and Wildlife could use a big Christmas present.


  2. shoreacres
    Dec 31, 2014 @ 16:50:54

    I’m surprised I’ve visited so many on that list. I laughed at “Governor Hogg Shrine.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-religious site designated a shrine, but perhaps for some, it does qualify.

    My aunt brought one delightful Christmas gift for me: a box of postal cards that had been sent mostly to my maternal grandmother. She had a good number of suitors, that’s for sure. In any event, I came across this one, dated 1911. I thought it was interesting that at that point in time, “natal day” still was common enough to appear on a penny postcard.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 31, 2014 @ 18:13:49

      It’s sad but true that many politicians seem to think they deserve a shrine.

      Your reference to “natal day” reminded me immediately that the phrase occurs in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance:

      Chant. — King.
      For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I’ve no desire to be disloyal,
      Some person in authority, I don’t know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
      Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February, twenty-eight
      days as a rule are plenty,
      One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine-and-twenty.
      Through some singular coincidence — I shouldn’t be surprised if it were owing
      to the agency of an ill-natured fairy —
      You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year,
      on the twenty-ninth of February.
      And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you’ll easily discover,
      That though you’ve lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays, you’re
      only five and a little bit over !

      Ruth. Ha ! ha ! ha ! ha !
      King. Ho ! ho ! ho ! ho !

      Fred. Dear me !
      Let’s see ! (counting on fingers.)
      Yes, yes ; with yours my fingers do agree !
      Ha ! ha ! ha ! Ho ! ho! ho! ho !
      How quaint the ways of Paradox !
      At common sense she gaily mocks !
      Though counting in the usual way,
      Years twenty-one I’ve been alive,
      Yet reckoning by my natal day,
      I am a little boy of five !
      All. He is a little boy of five ! Ha ! ha !


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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