Christmas Trees in Ancient Greek

Fiore_Square_WheelHow can you talk about your χ-mas tree in Koine Greek? As is often the case, so as not to reinvent the τροχός, it’s good to see what Modern Greek uses for ‘Christmas tree.’ MGk uses τὸ ἔλατο. In fact, you can listen to the well known carol, ω έλατο, here. Lyrics are here.

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Christmas trees are usually pine or fir trees (pines were actually called fir trees prior to the 19th century), so it’s not surprising that τὸ ἔλατο primarily refers to the fir tree (pine is ἡ πεύκη or τὸ πεύκο, which is also ancient). The German ‘Tannenbaum’ also refers to the fir tree.

What were fir trees called in Ancient Greek? Here we are not far at all from Modern, as we have the following:

In conclusion, then, were a 1st-century Alexandrian transported to the 21st century, he would likely call our modern Christmas trees ἐλάται or, were he periphrastically inclined and cognizant of the holiday’s significance, τὰ δένδρα τῆς ἑορτῆς τῆς Χριστουγεννήσεως.

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About Daniel Streett

Associate Professor of Greek and New Testament at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas
This entry was posted in Word of the Week and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Christmas Trees in Ancient Greek

  1. Paul says:

    The Greeks use neuter plural for “Christmas” i.e. τα Χριστουγεννα / των Χριστουγεννων

    • Paul, thanks. I was aware that modern Greek uses Χριστουγεννα, but I found some Byzantine texts with the singular Χριστουγεννησεως and felt it sounded more NT-ish and Koine, since γεννησις/γενεσις is well-attested in Koine and NT (see Lk 1:14). I find γεννα (-ης) in ancient Greek as a feminine noun but not neuter plural.

      • Paul says:

        Perhaps the reason that Modern Greek uses neuter plural is because ancient Greek used neuter plural for festivals eg τα Διονύσια, Παναθήναια, Κρόνια, Συνοίκια, Θεσμοφόρια κτλ

      • That makes sense to me. It is interesting, in light of that, that LXX does not pluralize festivals that are not already plural.

  2. Γρηγόριος says:

    Χριστούγεννα is only plural by accident. It derives from ἡ Χριστοῦ γέννα, which is singular feminine, but sometime in the Byzantine period came to be commonly used in the plural neuter. The official name of the feast in Greek service books is Ἡ κατὰ Σάρκα Γέννησις τοῦ Κυρίου καὶ Θεοῦ καὶ Σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ, and is often abbreviated, e.g. on icons of the Nativity, as simply Ἡ Γέννησις τοῦ Χριστοῦ. In more formal settings even in Modern Greek, it can still be called this. In Modern Greek, the tree is most basically called τὸ ἔλατο, but the phrase χριστουγεννιάτικο δέντρο is not unheard of, and I notice that the article in βικιπαίδεια calls it τὸ δένδρο τῶν Χριστουγέννων, although I have never heard this in common parlance.

  3. Paul says:

    Why is “birthday” plural in Modern Greek γενέθλια – neuter plural?
    In NT Greek it is also plural γενεσια. In Mat 14:6 γενεσιων gen pl and in Mark 6:21 τοις γενεσιοις dative plural. But in LXX Gen 40:20 it is fem singular.

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