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.”
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.