Recently I received a touching and sentimental tale of how a mega-hype retail magnate had corrupted his town into accepting the lowly and disrespectful “Xmas” to replace “Christmas,” because Christ no longer mattered. The story expounds at length upon how wicked it is to use “X” instead of Christ (because “X is the lowliest of letters and can mean anything!”) and that the use of “Xmas” is just an attempt to secularize the celebration.
Well, let me make a rather important point, as this misconception seems to be growing. I suspect that part of the reason for the present-day concern is that Christmas has been very secularized (and for a very long time) and there is a trend toward identifying this time of year as “The Holidays” in a generic attempt to encompass the many traditions that have celebrations at this time of year. (I have no dispute with “Happy Holidays,” yet I do find “holiday tree” rather affected … but I digress.)
As for the abbreviation “Xmas,” it is perfectly legitimate and a fully respectful, proper abbreviation of the word Christmas; “Xmas” means “Christmas,” and should be read as such. I know of no one who reads the familiar “Mrs.” as “mrizz” yet many folks do say “Eks-muss” when looking at “Xmas.” But it really is “Christmas.” And Xmas is no less respectful than writing “St. Nicholas” instead of “Saint Nicholas.”
Far from being a modern introduction, Xmas goes back very far into the history of the English language, and the use of “X” in as an abbreviation for “Christ” dates back at least to the 4th Century AD. The oldest such usage in the British Isles can be found in the Book of Durrow, The Book of Kells, and the Lindesfarne Gospels, all glorious manuscripts of the Gospels. The abbreviation has its origins even earlier times, very likely as far back as the days of the early Christian church.
In the Greek language used at the time of St. Paul and in the early Church, the Hebrew title “Messiah,” “anointed one,” was translated into Greek as “Christos,” with the identical meaning. The way “Christos” would be written in 1st century Greek can be rendered in our own Latin alphabet:
The initial letter is the Greek chi, familiar to many fraternity and sorority folks; it is pronounced as a hard ch, translitterated as ch, and written exactly as our own letter X. As the initial of “XPICTOC,” X, was used to mean “Christos” very early on. And this usage was formerly extremely widespread with absolutely no sense of any short-changing or lessened respect in such usage. Today we use many abbreviations commonly, but abbreviations were far more common when everything was written by hand.
Elizabethan court records most often render the name “Christopher” as “Xopher.” The transcript of the Coroner’s inquest into the death of Christopher Marlowe spells out Christopher just once in the text. And the abbreviations “Xian” for “Christian” and “Xianity” for “Christianity” are commonly used in handwritten texts until the end of the 19th Century. In no sense is “X” a disrespectful or crass abbreviation in these usages: it simply makes sense in a world where many, many other abbreviations were commonly used.
Xmas shows up in America well before the Revolutionary war, but I cannot locate any reference to its first appearance in a commercial context. Undoubtedly, some sign-painter was conserving space or saving time, just as handwriters had been doing for hundreds of years. In today’s highly commercial, highly secularized, and highly diverse society, it may seem that “Xmas” is an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas, but it is no such thing. It is an abbreviation, pure and simple. It was acceptable to the holy brethren on Iona in the 6th century, and they were as observant and respectful as could be. One might just as well bemoan the fact that the “-mas” in Christmas is an abbreviation of “mass” (itself a shortening of the Latin missa, meaning – roughly – “complete:” Ite. Missa est.)
So, friends, enjoy this holiday season. Celebrate Christmas or Xmas, or Hanukkah or any holiday which you prefer. Have a restful, relaxing, contemplative time, and share it with family and friends. Love those who are here and recall those who have gone. I am deeply grateful to my mother who taught me about Xmas almost as soon as I learned to read (“Why Xmas? …”) and I think of her especially at this time of the year. Cherish what we have, and share with those who need. Above all, be at peace, be happy.
A multitude of blessings upon you and yours, my friends!
Flower Mound, Texas
I’ve known this for a long time but enjoy your amplification.