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A friend recently asked me what are my family’s traditions for Christmas.  Besides a formal meal, we also purchase and decorate a Christmas tree, the latter usually to the backdrop of nostalgic Christmas songs and candlelight.  But the most familiar tradition, even an oft-lamented one in our materialism-saturated society, is the exchanging of gifts.  But I am convinced there is nothing inherently wicked with either the getting or the giving of presents.

Gift and give are newer forms of a presumed old, old root, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ghabh- meaning “to give or receive”.  Before it reached English, it appeared in the Old Norse with a definition “gift, good luck”.  For a while it was pronounced yiven, before the guttural ‘g’ resurfaced.  An initial ‘h’ sound is also associated with the root, developing into the somewhat opposite word have.  Isn’t it interesting that giving and receiving are so closely linked that they’re all mixed up with the same family of words?

Present specifically carries the notion of something offered, freely, but before it is received.  It is set in the presence of one, placed “before their face”.

The word receive has a more Latin than Germanic heritage, entering English c. 1300, about 200 years after the Norman French conquest of England, from the Old North French, meaning at that time “seize, take hold of, accept”.  I like the emphasis on the fact that a gift cannot simply be thrust on someone; the action is interactive, with the receiver willingly taking the gift.  In earlier forms, found in Latin, the word meant “regain, take back, recover, take in, or admit”.  There’s a sense of vengeance contrasted with the sense of hospitality.

Hospitality is, in Greek, xenia, especially referring to the “rights of a guest or stranger”.  There is a city in Ohio named for this word.  I think that is a lovely motto of which to be reminded every time one’s city is mentioned.  It is not so much seen in our country as in many other nations, including the Israelite tribe whose generosity to the poor and stranger in the land was mandated by the Mosaic Law (see also this passage).

Hospitality is also a French/Latin borrowing, also since the 1300’s.  It comes from a word meaning “friendliness to guests”.  Compare this to the word host, whose entry at Etymonline.com goes further than the longer form hospitalityHost goes back to the PIE *ghostis- which is supposed to have referred to both the host and the guest, with an original sense of referring to strangers, on whichever side.

In the 1993 movie, “Shadowlands”, based on the life of C.S. Lewis, there is a scene about Christmas in which he is discussing the fate of the season in their mid-century culture:

One [Inkling] laments, “I’m afraid Christmas, as I remember it, is rather a lost cause.”

Jack, as his friends call him, and sounding rather like his voice is echoing out of far-away winter-bound Narnia whispers, “It’s because we’ve lost the magic… You tell people it’s about taking care of the poor and needy, and naturally they don’t even miss it.”

To which his friend, a Roman Catholic priest, responds, “The needy do come into it: ‘no room at the inn,’ remember?  The mother and child?”

I do like to remember that.  I like that older songs remember that.  I like that my friend this year asked for suggestions of how to make our holiday reflect the truth of this verse, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” She wanted to know how to celebrate being made rich and to imitate Christ’s poverty-bearing, rich-making love.

There is a tradition of being charitable particularly at Christmas.  (This is in the line of other, biblical feast-days, during which kindness to the poor was encouraged in response to God’s blessings of abundance that were being celebrated, especially in the harvest-feasts of Firstfruits and Tabernacles.  It is a way to recognize that it is God’s undeserved blessing that provides enough to survive or feast.  If we, by pleasing Him, do not relinquish His grace, we are to expect His continued blessings.  And He is pleased when we remember the poor and have charity towards them.  We can give like the saints in Philippi, depleting our own storehouses, knowing that the God who is using us to care for the poor will faithfully provide for us as well.)

This responsibility to the poor is communicated by the history of the word generous, which originally meant “of noble birth” (same root as genus, referring to biological descent and classification into kinds or races or families) and only by implications of the duty, of those blessed with more, to share with those who have less did it come to mean “magnanimous”.

Benevolence, “disposition to do good”, is a compound word, from the Latin bene “well” and volantem “to wish”.

Alms is another term for this benevolence.   In Old English it was ælmesse, occurring also in German, and Latin, where it is spelled eleemosyna.  This was, in turn, borrowed from the Greek eleemosyne, referring to “pity, mercy”.  In modern English, though rare, it means a gift, especially of money or food, given out to the needy.

Charity is from the Old French, “charity, mercy, compassion; alms” from Latin, “costliness, esteem, affection”.  Isn’t it instructive, the impulse of expressing love by costly, sacrificial giving?  It can be satisfying, and blessed, to give.

Love is, by own definition, the giving of a treasure.  Treasure comes from the same Greek root as thesaurus, and it means “hoard, storehouse, treasury” – presumably of something worth enough to be collected and kept safe.  Can stores be shared?  What does it say when one is willing to disperse a hoard?

Donation is attested in Latin, donum, “gift”, from the PIE *donum.  The same word is found in Sanskrit: danam “offering, present” and in Old Irish dan, “gift, endowment, talent”.

In my family’s tradition, the focus is more on expressing love to one another than to those less fortunate.  Our gifts are an exchange, late 1300’s, “act of reciprocal giving and receiving”, from the Latin ex- “out” and cambire “barter”.  Cambire is supposed to be of Celtic origin, the PIE *kemb- “to bend”, developing in the sense of altering the current state, then specifically changing something by putting something else in its place.

At Christmas especially, the packages under the tree are almost always wrapped, so as to be a surprise.  Unexpectedly, this word used to mean only “a taking unawares; unexpected attack or capture”.  The roots are sur- “over” and prendre “to take, grasp, seize”.  It might be ironic that though we think of thinly cloaked gifts as surprises, at Christmas they are not always unforeseen or unexpected; who hasn’t made a Christmas wish list?  In fact, it is perhaps a disadvantage of our custom: that gifts come to be expected, or even demanded, by the recipients.

When the word wrap appeared in English around AD 1300, it meant “to wind, cover, conceal, bind up, swaddle”.  I think we do this to increase the ornamental feeling of festivity, not as a symbol of the baby Jesus being similarly wrapped before being placed in a manger.

Swaddle seems to come from a word meaning a slice or strip.

Ribbon, which often adorns our gifts, might have a similar historic meaning, if it is related to band, “a flat strip” and “something that binds”, a rejoining of two divergent threads of Middle English, distinguished at one point by different spellings, band referring to joining together and bande to a strip or even a stripe (where it likely morphed into ribane, a stripe in a material).  The original root of band is, PIE *bendh- “to bind”.

Something else we use to hold things together when we’re wrapping them?  Tape.  My cousin says, “tape, lots of tape.”  This Old English tæppe is a “narrow strip of cloth used for tying or measuring”.  It could be formed from the Latin for “cloth, carpet”, tapete, or it might be related to the Middle Low German tapen, “to pull, pluck, tear”.

(These words are so fun, the way they communicate the action by which the thing got to be – or the state that inspired and enabled an action.  What was life like for the people who named a strip of fabric tape?  Well, maybe they were pulling on cloth {reminiscent of one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Little Women”, where the ladies of the house spend time tearing old sheets into strips to be used as bandages for those soldiers wounded in the American Civil War}.  Why would they do that?  To have something with which to bind things together.  It’s a different world from our manufacturing-driven lifestyles, where tape and ribbon and string are purchased in packages off of shelves.  They’re things made originally for their purposes, not improvised from something else.  It’s like a history lesson in a word!)

The other reason we think of gifts during the holiday season in which we remember God’s entry into our world in human flesh is because His birth was honored by gifts from wise visitors from the East.  These men recognized that Jesus was born to be the King, the long-prophesied King of the everlasting kingdom.  And though this God-King could have turned stones into bread, and summoned armies of angels, He chose to experience poverty.  Though He experienced the lowliness of being born to a poor mother and living as a refugee, a stranger, in Egypt, he was honored by costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when a very young boy.

Such is the nature not only of love, to give sacrificially, but also of worship.  How remiss would any of us be, to overlook the presence of the Highest King?  Not only is His worth expressed by Kings giving Him treasures; it is demonstrated by the “sacrifice of praise” every person can offer:  The Christmas carols sing that the wise men have “come to pay Him homage,” Old French “allegiance or respect for one’s feudal lord”, from Latin homo, “man”.  Or in “What Child Is This?” we are bid to “haste, haste, to bring Him laud”, also Old French, “praise, extol” from Latin laus, “praise, fame, glory”.  A cognate, or brother-word in Old English was leoð, “song, poem, hymn”.  He is worthy of the richest treasures.  We owe Him everything we have, everything that is.  We also owe Him our allegiance, our praise, our songs.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

Many thanks and credit to the resources of www.Etymonline.com and www.Dictionary.Reference.com in compiling these definitions and histories.  Also to www.BlueLetterBible.org for Scriptures.

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Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power by Jesse L. Byock
Written in a reader-friendly research paper style, this nonfiction book invited me into the few hundred years of the colonization, formation, and decline of Iceland as a free state.  Several chapters into the book I realized that this little island’s short-lived government had warranted a mention in my world history textbook in high school.  You too may recognize the word Althing, the Icelandic parliament. 
 
By far my favorite part of this book was the way in which the author introduced and incorporated native words (closely related to Old Norse).  To my surprise and delight, I found I could recognize many of these words as sharing roots with some strong English words.  Take Althing.  Thing originally meant gathering, and was heavily employed in Iceland to refer to their deliberative gatherings, that which was discussed at the gatherings, etc.  The prefix is exactly what you would expect from the sound of it: All.  The Althing was different from a general thing because it was the one gathering annually in which citizens from the entire country gathered to hold high court, to address pressing national issues, and to have a marvelous feast and market. 
 
Second favorite was the references to the sagas, and the summaries/explanations of their plots.  Once I picked up a book thicker than the Bible at our local library because it had an interesting title, The Sagas of the Icelanders, and a Viking ship on the front.  After reading an enjoyable first half of the book I took it back, just overwhelmed by the amount of literature contained.  As Jesse L. Byock took me through the history of Iceland, referencing the sagas, I began to vaguely recollect the stories.  I’ve heard that name before.  Yes, I remember something like that happening in the sagas.  I didn’t know that’s what was going on in that saga! 
 
Finally I was fascinated to get a feel for the culture of early Iceland.  Though the author seems to believe that they were a stable, upright society, I beg to differ.  Though they balanced their government: freedom and power, friendship and dependency; their legal system was built on feuding, which often included the death of men in the territory of the offensive leader, or family members of a person.  False charges could be made and prosecuted, essentially stealing a person’s property just by suing him.  If one of the primary feuders was killed in the disagreement, his close kin often took up the feud in his honor, or in vengeance.  Sometimes this was the only way to defend their inheritance.  The society was certainly a might makes right struggle for limited resources and carefully guarded (and uncentralized) power. 
 
There was also a reference to exposing infants, which is murder of the most helpless.  When the country converted to Christianity, one of the compromises which made that a peaceful transfer was that citizens were allowed to continue to eat horse and also to commit infanticide. 
 
I did notice similarities between Iceland’s culture and northern Scotland’s before the 19th century.  Though not necessarily bound by blood, or even bound for life and generations as in Scotland, clans had similar responsibilities to and expectations of their chieftains.  The Scottish people are famous for their tartan weaves, and woven cloth was actually used as a form of currency in Iceland (a country filled with farmsteads and cottage industry).  Perhaps the climate and ancestral/invader influences were the same in Scotland and Iceland. 
 
In Medieval Iceland the scholarly author intends to put forward his theories about the transfer and acquisition of wealth in Iceland.  He focuses heavily on politics, a hugely interesting perspective in that field.  For example the Icelander’s realized (coming out of a feudal Europe) that if a government/king/chieftain could tax your property, you no longer owned the property.  They had a strong libertarian democracy, but with a bend to settle things.  The government in Iceland was entirely legislative and judicial, leaving enforcement to the individuals and the strong local governments. 
 
Why did this system of government fail?  Why is it not in use today?  What can we learn from Iceland for our own situation in America today?  Iceland is the first country whose origins were observed in history-writing times.  Initially the country offered land free for the taking (sometimes taking was in the sense of theft), and the small population was content to be the rugged pioneers of a relatively hostile land.  As the population grew and resources were expended, the competition became more and more fierce.  Eventually the Althing voted to quench the trampling aspirations of the developing aristocracy by returning themselves to the jurisdiction of Norway (whose government had at this point several centuries after the initial immigration, mellowed).  The world was on the verge of transformation: protestant reformation, the printing press, the democratic revolutions (including the founding of America) would all appear in the next several centuries.  
 
 To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

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