Who Put the “X” in “Xmas”?

Posted on 2010 December 24


The Chi-Ro is an early abbreviation for Jesus

It’s that time of year when decorations adorn homes, yule logs crackle, gifts are placed under the tree, and preachers scold us for using the word “Xmas”. They’ve been known to declare that the “X” takes Jesus out of the season, that it’s somehow disrespectful to the holiday spirit and to Christianity itself. They insist we should always spell it “Christmas”.

I got curious and looked up “Xmas” on the Internet. I learned some fascinating facts:

The “X” in “Xmas” is called a “Christogram” — literally, a written representation of Christ. There are many Christograms, including famous ones like “IHC” and “JHS” (the first three letters of “Jesus” in old writing). The “X” is the first letter of the Greek “Christos” — from which we get our word “Christ” — and its shape symbolizes the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The “X” has been used this way since 1021, nearly a thousand years, and the use of “Xmas” as a symbolic shorthand for “Christmas” has been popular for at least 200 years.

But wait, there’s more! Other spellings have included “Xtmas” (the first and last letters of Christ but in mixed languages) and “Xp” (the Greek letters “chi-ro”) where the “p” is pronounced like an “r” so the combination amounts to the “Chr” of “Christos”. As far back as Roman times they put the “p” atop the “X” to create a compelling symbol for Jesus called the labarum. And the “mas” in Christmas is itself an abbreviation for “mass” — in this case, the celebration of the Mass of Christ on December 25.

Famous 19th-century writers used “Xmas”, and holiday card makers employed it well into the 20th century. People understood it as a succinct way of writing “Christmas”. Recent decades, however, have seen darker uses for the letter “x”, as in x-rated, x for poison, x for the scary unknown, and so forth. And advertisers were so fond of writing “Xmas” that the word became associated with commercialism.

Still, “Xmas” has a long and distinguished history, steeped in the traditions of Christian symbology. Abandoning it now would leave the poor letter “x” with no one to defend its nobility against the depradations of popular usage. After all, America sends its navy into the Black Sea so that our access doesn’t close up and the waters become Russian territory; women keep a post in their pierced earlobes so the hole doesn’t close up; and Christians might want to hang on to “Xmas” so that their option to use it doesn’t erode, even as the tides of cultural change try to sweep it away.

What troubles me about those who rant against “Xmas” are:

1. They’re being angry and petty during a season of love and charity and forgiveness;

2. They’re punishing people for mentioning Christmas at all;

3. They’re flat-out wrong about the meaning of the word.

I’m reminded of the joke where a guy answers his door to an angry man holding an ice cream cone. The man yells, “Buy this, quick! I need to meet my quota, dammit! Hurry up!” The homeowner asks, “Who are you?” The man replies, “The Good Humor Man!” Christianity has enough enemies without some of its adherents alienating potential supporters — especially at Christmas time.

Now, a few of you dear readers will insist that I’m wrong about all this, and you’ll further insist on your continuing right to scold people who write “Xmas” on their correspondence. And of course you’re free to do so. But be aware that if you persist, those people may give up entirely and start writing “Happy Holidays!”

And that would really annoy you.