There is a well-known Christmas carol that starts out like this:

God rest you merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our saviour
Was born on Christmas Day

Another carol has this verse:

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn

These lyrics always bothered me for their apparent vacuousness. Christ was born on Christmas Day – well, yeah. Christmas just is the day that Christ was born, right? Mary bore Jesus Christ on Christmas dayno shit! She couldn’t have born him on any other day even if she wanted to! If she had born Christ on any other day, that day would thereby just have been Christmas Day.

That Christ was born on Christmas Day is an example of what philosophers call an analytic proposition, a proposition that is true by virtue of its meaning. Analytic propositions are contrasted with synthetic propositions, which are true according as whether or not they accurately describe the state of things. Here’s a synthetic proposition: “Dwight Eisenhower was born on Christmas Day.” Is that true? I just made it up, so probably not, but it could be. Determining the truth of that claim would require looking up Eisenhower’s date of birth and checking if it was Christmas or not. But nothing needs to be looked up to verify that Christ was born on Christmas Day – that’s just what it means to be Christmas Day.

That’s what I thought, anyway, but it turns out that none of that is true. The word Christmas is a shortening of Christ’s mass (as in, “church mass”). There are other names of the form __-mas, like: Martinmas, Michaelmas, Childermas, and Candlemas. None of these events pertain to births. Martinmas is on the day of Martin’s funeral; Michaelmas has to do with the angel Michael, and I don’t know that the particular day has any significance; Childermas commemorates the “Massacre of the Innocents”; and Candlemas doesn’t have anything to do with any specific people at all, just candles.

It isn’t the case that Christmas “just is” the day that Christ was born. It’s the festival that commemorates Christ, and it happens to fall on the birth of Christ, but it could have been set on some other day instead. So when these carols say that Christ was born on Christmas Day, they are not saying something trivially, analytically true.

Okay, but isn’t it still obvious that Christ was born on Christmas Day? Doesn’t everyone already know that? Why bother mentioning it? According to my cursory Wikipedia research, this was not always the case:

Associating it with drunkenness and other misbehaviour, the Puritans banned Christmas in England in the 17th century. It was restored as a legal holiday in 1660, but remained disreputableCharles Dickens and other writers helped in this revival of the holiday by “changing consciousness of Christmas and the way in which it was celebrated” as they emphasized family, religion, gift-giving, and social reconciliation as opposed to the historic revelry common in some places.

The modern rehabilitation of Christmas as a time for thanks and family and blah blah blah didn’t take hold until the 19th century. But the carols quoted above were written before then. Maybe when they were first developed, the knowledge that Christ was born on Christmas Day was not widespread, and would have been considered non-obvious. Maybe it even took a tone of admonishment: uptight carolers come upon some drunken Christmas revelers, and say “Hey now, take this seriously! Remember, Christ was born on Christmas Day!”

A critical point to keep in mind when engaging in textual interpretion is that the reader(s) and writer(s) of a text might have dramatically different knowledge, background assumptions, and purposes. Those carols were not developed with a “modern” understanding of Christmas; if they had been, they probably would not have included lyrics that seem stupid to modern ears.

A more superficial example of the same point is the rotted rhymes of “The Holly and the Ivy”. I don’t know if there is an established term for this, but what I mean is words that used to rhyme, but now don’t, and therefore sound bad. Consider:

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full GROWN
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the CROWN

The rising of the sun
And the running of the DEER
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the CHOIR

The holly bears a berry
As red as any BLOOD
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners GOOD

Words in all-caps do not rhyme anymore, at least not in modern American English, but apparently they used to. Even if there were no other corroborating evidence that these words used to rhyme, the principle of charity would lead to the hypothesis that they did. After all, there are basically only two possibilities: 1) the words used to rhyme, or 2) these lyrics are dumb. The second possibility is not a charitable interpretation, so the first should be assumed, at least as a working hypothesis.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the correct punctuation the line “God rest you merry genlemen”?
  2. How sharp is the distinction between “analytic” and “synthetic” propositions?
  3. How is it possible to misidentify a synthetic proposition as an analytic one?
  4. When was Dwight Eisenhower born?
  5. Is there an exhaustive list of __-mas words?
  6. Is the confusion exhibited in this post just an artifact of English, or does it occur in other languages?
  7. Do the lyrics of “The Holly and the Ivy” still rhyme anywhere?
  8. Was Christ really born on Christmas Day?
  9. Was “Christ” really born at all?