Xmas

At Daley Center Plaza here in Chicago they have an annual Christmas-time market called Christkindlmarket. They have been doing this for about ten years now, and I go several times a year for lunch (I usually get a brat with kraut, German fried potatoes, and some strudel). It is really very quaint and a fun place to visit at holiday time.

Recently this market was in the local news as a part of the movement to “put Christ back into Christmas.” The makers of the recently released movie “The Nativity Story,” which I have seen and enjoyed, wanted to be a sponsor this year and show clips from the movie. The City declined, which led to all sorts of complaining about removing Christ from Christmas in the papers and on TV. (There are already overtly religious displays: a life-size nativity scene, a giant menorah and a giant crescent.) The City wasn’t trying to keep Christ out of Christmas, but simply thought that the commercialism of the movie clips would be out of character for the decidedly low-tech ambience of the market, and personally I agreed with the City’s decision.

This little local dustup reminded me of something I’ve faced from time to time. I am a big fan of Christmas (I have a massive Christmas music collection, for example), and when I write about Christmas I usually spell the word out, but I sometimes use the abbreviation Xmas. Occasionally, someone will take issue with this, and claim I am trying to “take Christ out of Christmas.” Anyone who knows me would know I am the last person who would ever intentionally try to do that.

The problem, at least as I see it, is simply a function of ignorance of historic religious symbolism and iconography. The X in Xmas is not an English genericizing element, as in Brand X or Malcolm X or x as a variable in an algebraic equation. Rather, it represents the Greek letter chi (which looks like an X), which is the first letter in christos, “Christ,” the Greek translation used in the New Testament for Hebrew mashiach, “messiah, anointed one.”

In ancient NT manuscripts, the names of deity, which occured frequently, were often abbreviated so as to save space on precious papyrus or parchment. A common abbreviation for Jesus was IC with a line over it (the first and last letters of the name in Greek, using the lunate sigma), and a common abbreviation for Christ was XC with a line over it, again, with lunate sigma. In medieval literature, the abbreviations for Chirst of XP [the P is not an English p but a Greek rho, the second letter of christos] or Xt are common, and even today we sometimes still see the abbreviation Xian for “Christian.”

Labarum This can be seen in the chi rho cross, or the Labarum, an image of which accompanies this post.

So Xmas is not un- or anti-Christian. To the contrary, it is thoroughly Christian, and there is a long tradition of using the X as an abbreviation for Christ. When people browbeat me for using that abbreviation, I am tempted to reply that, rather than putting the Christ back into Christmas, perhaps we should try putting the Christ back into Christian.

Comments

  1. …we should try putting the Christ back into Christian.

    Awesome.

    Would you mind explaining that Labarum a bit?

  2. Very interesting. Very well put. I never knew that about Xmas. I believe many other might not know as well. Many of the dissention, confusion and even hate is largely brought by lack of knowledge and lack of understanding as well.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    The X is the letter chi and the P is the letter rho, the first two letters in the word christos.

    Have you ever wondered why the fish was an early Christian symbol? It was because they saw in the Greek word for fish, ichtus, an acronym for

    I Iesous
    CH Christos
    TH Theou
    U hUios
    S Soter

    Or, “Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior.”

    We actually have a brand new convert in our ward who is Greek and whose name is Soter, which is Greek for “savior.” So I explained this little acronym before I substitute taught the Gospel Essentials class a couple of weeks ago, and boy, did he get a kick out of it. He beamed from ear to ear.

  4. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Interesting post. This morning I was entering a Christmas event into my Palm and used the abbreviation “Xmas” (mostly because I’m totally inept at typing into such a tiny machine) then felt guilty about it and replaced it with the whole word.

    I have enjoyed the Christkindlmarket for several years. It’s a beautiful oasis in the middle of the busy city.

  5. The X is the letter chi and the P is the letter rho, the first two letters in the word christos.

    Yes, I caught that…but what are the other letters and where is this cross hail from?

  6. This post reminds me of something I might se on My Big Fat Greek Christmas… In theaters This Xmas (check local listings)

  7. Never mind…wikipedia has a large entry.

  8. Pyotr Veliki says:

    Hmm, that might explain the “omnipresence” of Windows XP…

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Sorry, I misunderstood your question. I just got the image from google images. The other letters to the left and right are alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (since Jesus is the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega). Otherwise, the Wikipedia article you link to is your best bet for further information.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Pyotr, the Wikipedia article J. links to actually mentions Windows XP!

  11. Pyotr Veliki says:

    I have enjoyed the Christkindlmarket for several years. It’s a beautiful oasis in the middle of the busy city.

    Here in Vienna the Christkindlmarkt is often just the opposite–so packed with hordes of tourists arriving by the bus load that it’s not worth the jostling of one’s Christ…ahem, Xmas spirit to enter into the fray and makes the otherwise busy city seem pleasent in comparison.

  12. Pyotr Veliki says:

    Pyotr, the Wikipedia article J. links to actually mentions Windows XP!

    Thanks for the tip–I guess I’m not as clever as I thought!

  13. It’s funny how blogging sometimes seems to feed on itself, when it is probably just serendipity.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I thought you were pretty clever, too, until I saw that line in the Wikipedia article. It never occurred to me that some people would relate Windows XP to the chi rho.

  15. Hey, maybe we can post about this every year!

    **grin**

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the links guys; I was not aware of them prior to posting.

    I had quite forgotten that BRM and other church leaders have tried to discourage the use of Xmas, seeing it as somehow “crossing” Christ out of Christmas. I will happily go on the record as disagreeing with them on this point.

  17. No worries Kevin, I’m sure they aren’t upset with you, as that wouldn’t be the Xian thing to do.

  18. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Pyotr- I remember visiting the Christkindlmarket in Brussels and having the same feelings as you had at the Viennese market. The hordes of tourists following a guide holding up an umbrella made the Belgian markets seem much more frantic and frustrating and definitely didn’t add to the Xmas spirit.

  19. I’m generally the last one to object to esoteric philology, and I personally am a big fan of the ichthism (sorry, had to make up that word), but I think the more relevant question to deciding whether to go with BRM on this controversy is not its distant etymology but its current use. I’d be interested in some empirical data on whether, regardless of its origin, Xmas is preferentially used by secular Americans or Evangelicals or lip gloss salespeople, how it’s pronounced (“Eks-mass”, “Khi-mass”, or “Christmas”), and how it’s perceived by the general public.

  20. a random John says:

    The problem, at least as I see it, is simply a function of ignorance of historic religious symbolism and iconography. The X in Xmas is not an English genericizing element, as in Brand X or Malcolm X or x as a variable in an algebraic equation. Rather, it represents the Greek letter chi (which looks like an X), which is the first letter in christos, “Christ,” the Greek translation used in the New Testament for Hebrew mashiach, “messiah, anointed one.”

    I’m ok with the ancient use of X to mean Christ, but that doesn’t imply that the originators of Xmas were aware of this use, does it? Does anybody have any info on the term Xmas itself?

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    I believe the correct pronunciation of Xmas is “Christmas” (not ecksmas). It is a visual abbreviation of the full name.

    Xmas certainly derives from the longstanding Christian tradition of abbreviating XPICTOC(Christos) with X.

  22. Jonathan Green says:

    For European Christmas markets, I have three suggestions.

    1. A decently large market will have its own section for children. In Nuremberg, at least, the children’s Christmas market is less crowded and has more fun things for the kids.

    2. Lots of smaller cities and towns have Christmas markets, too. They’ll be less crowded and often more charming.

    3. For the big markets, go on December 23 or whenever the last day is. That’s when the locals bother to show up.

  23. “Xian” always looks to me like the extreme sport mode of Christianity.

  24. It may not be blasphemous, but it’s certainly lazy.

  25. Kevin – Thanks for this informative post. I had no idea of the history and symbolism of the X in Xmas. I wonder, however, if all those who tend to use Xmas have your understanding of those facts.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 23
    I think the Evangelicals are already using it.
    Xtreme Xianity 2007 !!!!

  27. t may not be blasphemous, but it’s certainly lazy.

    Every time we abbreviate something we’re lazy?

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