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.
Is there any good reason why Christians might hate “Xmas?”
Certainly, Christians have a right to feel however they wish, and if they think that Christianity is being driven from the public square, there’s really no arguing they’re wrong. In fact, polls show that organized religion in America has been declining.
Writing at First Things, Matthew Schmitz, who is well aware of the historical roots of Xmas, discusses another reason some Christians might be wary of the shorthand:
The cultural, religious, communal traditions we see as especially embodied by Christmas have been undermined by the rise of commerce and cult of efficiency. The desire to get from point A to B by the shortest possible route, irrespective of the charms of traditional byways, fuels our mania for abbreviation. The hatred for Xmas, then, may stem in part from an innate suspicion of the attempt to render all things ancient and beautiful modern, cheap, and sleek.
Why does this matter?
First, the US remains divided over several traditional culture war issues, most prominently abortion. The battle over Xmas, though it might seem trivial, only reinforces the “secular vs. Christian America” narrative that fuels those arguments.
Second, the fight over the word Xmas underscores some American Christians’ real fear of persecution. It might seem ridiculous that members of the nation’s dominant religion would feel persecuted, and it’s easy to laugh about those who claim the statement “happy holidays” means de facto persecution. But try looking at it from their point-of-view.
The United States has gone from a nation where the default religion was assumed to be Christianity, to one that increasingly tries to make room for people of all faiths and belief systems. That can seem like a gradual, inevitable evolution to those not embroiled in the culture wars, but it can feel like a massive sea change to those who are. These changes are fast, and they are real, and those concerned about them shouldn’t just be dismissed or mocked.
In fact, dismissing concerns about the changing religious landscape is bad for all of us in the long run, as Susan Brooks Thistelthwaite wrote for FaithStreet about religious pluralism in America. “A conflict that cannot be named cannot be mediated. In other words,” she continues,
the more religiously pluralistic we become, the more visible our struggle becomes with these issues. It is only when we take the risk of actually looking at our religious stresses and strains that we can begin to act to know them, engage them, and hopefully move them in a more positive direction.
While it might be funny to joke about overblown fears about the so-called War On Christmas, it’s probably more helpful to try to understand the roots of those concerns, then address those in a thoughtful manner. Harvard University’s Pluralism Project offers some great ideas about the shape these talks could take.
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.” Or, as discussed, point out what the X really stands for.
Or, you could be even cheekier about it, and talk about how the original war on Christmas was actually waged by conservative American Christians. Wary of the pagan roots of the festivities, the Puritans wanted to keep Christmas out of their no-nonsense Christianity.
Or, finally, you could take a page from the man whose name is in the holiday, by realizing this is, ultimately, a pretty big fight over a single letter. Sometimes, turning the other cheek is pretty painless.