Written by Stephen Cox
It fits neatly on shop sale signs and in headlines but the word ‘Xmas’ has a tendency to get people riled. Some complain it takes the Christ out of Christmas, others assume it is a form of lazy shorthand. Style guides at some of the most popular global newspapers like the Times and the Guardian rule out its use, where possible. I don’t know about you but I used to have a real bee in my bonnet about that “X”; pushing Christ out of Christmas
X can mean so many things. For example, when we want to denote an unknown quantity, we use the symbol X. People seem to express chagrin about seeing Christ’s name dropped and replaced by this symbol for an unknown quantity X. Another example, X can refer to an obscene level of films, something that is X-rated. Every year we see the signs and the bumper stickers saying, “Put Christ back into Christmas” as a response to this substitution of the letter X for the name of Christ.
But should this particular four-letter word be causing so much offence?
There’s no X in Christmas
First of all, we have to understand that it is not the letter X that is put into Christmas. We see the English letter X there, but actually what it involves is the first letter of the Greek name 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:
The first letter of the Greek word Christos is transliterated into our alphabet as an X. That X has come through church history to be a shorthand symbol for the name of Christ. The X in Christmas is used like the nickname for my daughter. My wife and I often call her TJ, short for Trinity Jade. Nobody seems to be too scandalised by that.
X has a long and sacred history
The idea of X as an abbreviation for the name of Christ came into use in our culture with no intent to show any disrespect for Jesus. The church has used the symbol of the fish historically because it is an acronym. That is, the early Christians found that the first letters of each word in the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” actually spelt the Greek word for “fish” (ichthus)! That’s how the symbol of the fish became the universal symbol of Christendom. Similarly, there’s a long and sacred history of the use of X to symbolise the name of Christ, and from its origin, it has meant no disrespect.
By the fifteenth century Xmas emerged as a widely used symbol for Christmas. In 1436 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with moveable type. In the early days of printing, typesetting was done by hand and was very tedious and expensive. As a result, abbreviations were common. In religious publications, the church began to use the abbreviation C, or simply X, for the word “Christ” to cut down on the cost of the books and pamphlets. From there, the abbreviation moved into general use in newspapers and other publications, and “Xmas” became an accepted way of printing “Christmas” (along with the abbreviations Xian and Xianity). Even Webster’s dictionary acknowledges that the abbreviation Xmas was in common use by the middle of the sixteenth century.
So it turns out, using the phrase “Xmas” instead of writing “Christmas” isn’t some conspiracy by our secular humanist neighbours to remove Christ from Christmas. It’s simply an abbreviation of “Christ”-mas. It derives not from some modern secular agenda, but an ancient Christian custom of representing the name of our Lord with a Greek monogram. Yet every year, we Christians push back in the nonexistent war against Christmas and drive a wedge further between ourselves and the neighbours who Jesus has called us to radically love.
So what if somebody tells me we need to keep the Christ in Christmas?
You could suggest that the word “Christmas” is itself already a shorthand for “Christ’s mass.” (NB: mass is one of the names for our Lord’s Supper but often colloquially refers to the entire church service in general). Or, as discussed, point out what the X really stands for. How about we all go about writing “Xmas” but with a very deliberate and pronounced “Chi – χ“? Don’t ignore it, don’t push it away; draw attention to it. Make your Chi really obvious (perhaps like I have above) so that it almost demands a response:
“Oh, I’ve written it properly. Did you know that ‘Xmas’ is meant to be written with a greek Chi?”
and then explain why.
We all want to keep Christ in Christmas, so how about this year we keep the Chi in Xmas?