You’ve probably heard the phrase “Keep Christ in Christmas,” either on a church sign, or a Facebook wall. You might have even heard it this month. The idea is always the same: let’s not rub out the religious roots of this holiday by saying “Xmas,” instead of Christmas.
This might seem like a strange battle to wage, but there are people who really, earnestly believe this is deeply important. For instance, Franklin Graham, son of Billy, put it like this:
For us as Christians, [Christmas] is one of the most holy of the holidays, the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. And for people to take Christ out of Christmas. They’re happy to say merry Xmas. Let’s just take Jesus out. And really, I think, a war against the name of Jesus Christ.
This is of a piece with those who fret that saying “happy holidays” is somehow scrubbing the season’s religious ties away. But those who make this argument are barking up the wrong tree, because, you see, the X in “Xmas” literally means Jesus. Allow us to explain.
How can the letter “X” stand for “Christ”?
In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word Christos (Christ) begins with the letter “X,” or chi. Here’s what it looks like:
So how did that word get abbreviated?
In the early fourth century, Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306-337, popularized this shorthand for Christ. According to legend, on the eve of his great battle against Maxentius, Constantine had a vision that led him to create a military banner emblazoned with the first two letters of Christ on it: chi and rho.
These two letters, then, became a sort of shorthand for Jesus Christ.
When did the Greek letter start to be used in the word “Christmas?”
Most scholars agree that the first appearance of this abbreviation for Christmas dates to 1021, “when an Anglo-Saxon scribe saved himself space by writing XPmas,” reported First Things. Parchment paper was quite expensive, so any techniques for saving space were welcome. The abbreviation stuck and eventually was shortened to Xmas.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it in a letter, dated December 31, 1801, for instance: “On Xmas day I breakfasted with Davy.” The verb “xmassing” was also used in the magazine Punch in 1884, according to The Guardian.
Are there any other Christian examples of this?
There’s an ancient acronym many of us are familiar with, even if we don’t realize it. Have a look:
It’s pronounced Ich-thus, and it’s the Greek word for fish. You may know it better as the so-called “Jesus fish” of bumper sticker fame. Early Christians used it as an abbreviated form of one of their creeds: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
These shorthands happen in seminaries all the time. As they do with Christ, seminarians write a similar shorthand for the Greek word God, which is θεός (theos). When abbreviating the word, they’ll just jot down the first letter, θ (theta).
So how did Xmas become so hated?
Good question. The answer may have something to do with the culture wars, the historical tension between the left and the Christian right.
Think about Franklin Graham’s quote above. For him, and to many who share his particular religious leanings, Xmas is symbolic of a bigger problem with our culture: not only are we crossing out Christ in the word, they say, but we’re tossing him out of the public square. Therefore, Xmas, as Graham said, “is a war against the name of Jesus Christ.”
Graham and those who think similarly (like actor Kirk Cameron and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin) believe the secularization of American culture is so all pervasive that even if they’re aware of the religious roots of Xmas, they still believe it is symbolic of a larger trend. Thus, it has to go.
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