Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Let's Keep X in Xmas!

(Warning: there will be Greek in this post.)

Every year at Christmas it is common to see or hear, among all the hustle and bustle and various trappings of the season, assertions that we ought to "Keep Christ in Christmas." Now, insofar as this means we ought to recognize that Christmas is a primarily Christian holiday meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus, that's all well and good. I certainly affirm the right of non-religious people to keep Christmas in their own way if they choose, but I do find the excessive secularization (and commercialization, Charlie Brown) of the holiday a bit bothersome.

All too often, though, the phrase "Keep Christ in Christmas" is said in reference to the abbreviation "Xmas." Now, there are all sorts of reasons to use this abbreviation: "Christmas" isn't a particularly long word, but when one is, say, sending a text message or writing a shopping list or the like, it can be useful to shorten it. But shortening it to "Xmas," so the thinking goes, removes "Christ" from the holiday, and is cause for varying levels of frustration and anger among believers who understand "the reason for the season." In fact, all too often such anger and frustration is expressed in a manner that is, shall we say, less than consistent either with the Christmas spirit or with Christian charity. But what are we to do? Should we just accept this (apparent) attack on our faith during one of the two most important holidays of the Christian year? How should we handle this?

Well, maybe we don't need to do anything about it. In fact, upon further examination, all the hoopla over the use of "Xmas" instead of "Christmas" is what the apostle Paul called "zeal without knowledge" (Romans 10:2). In fact, a little digging shows that the use of this abbreviation is not a exctly modern practice. In fact, it is at least 250 years old, and is actually of Christian origin. You see, "Christ" in Greek is Χρίστος (Christos). See that letter at the beginning that looks like an X? That's a chi, which is usually transliterated ch. In fact, a great many English words wherein a "ch" makes a "k" sound are of Greek origin, "school" for example (from σχολη, schole). That means that the X in "Xmas" is actually meant to be a chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. And so, consequently, using "Xmas" does not "take Christ out of Christmas." It just substitutes the first letter for the whole name.

People who live in or near cities with long names actually use much the same practice all the time. I grew up near Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Very rarely does anyone in that area actually say (much less write) "Elizabethtown." It's nearly always "E-town." Functionally, using "Xmas" for "Christmas" is the same thing, except the replacement letter is Greek instead of English.

Now, some will no doubt point out that most people who use "Xmas" don't know anything about how Christ's name was written in Greek, and so they're still "taking Christ out of Christmas." And that's completely true, after a fashion. But to that I say two things: first, the majority of people who use this abbreviation have no malicious, anti-Christian intent in doing so. They're not trying to dodge the Christian origins of the holiday, or any such thing. They're just people who, for whatever reason, find it convenient to knock a few letters off of a 9-letter word. The point is, it's a person's motivations that matter. It's wrong - preposterous, really - to assume that someone is somehow denigrating Christ and Christmas just because they abbreviate the word. Before you judge them, have a look at their Christmas decorations. Or their holiday traditions. Or just have a conversation with them. How a person does Christmas is much more important than how a person writes it. Completely apart from all that fanciness with the Greek, we as Christians really ought to know better than to lambast people for how they write a word if we know nothing else about them or how they celebrate the holiday.

Secondly, though, there are people who use "Xmas" because they are specifically trying to de-Christianize the holiday. There are even people who write "Xian" and "Xianity" for the same reason. How, you may ask, should we deal with that? Quite apart from whether it's our place to deal with it at all, my response is to be amused, for two reasons. First, I'm amused because it's an attempt at cleverness that really winds up just being rather childish and petty. Second, it's amusing because it's ironic. Precisely because of the origins of the abbreviation, using it to take Christ out of Christmas is a non-starter. They're trying to use a Christian abbreviation to de-Christianize an inescapably Christian holiday. Either way, it's basically the rhetorical equivalent of this guy:


So, the moral of the story is this: just because a person uses "Xmas" for "Christmas" doesn't necessarily mean they're taking Christ out of Christmas, because the abbreviation itself is of Christian origin. And even if it wasn't, there are a whole lot of ways to "keep Christ in Christmas" that have nothing to do with how we write the word. Also, using Xmas because you do want to take Christ out of Christmas is like fouling a baseball off your face.

Happy Holidays!

1 comment:

Caren said...

Great article! Personally I always thought of the X in X-mas as a cross. I mean the letter is literal made of two crossed lines. And when though of that way instead of removing christ from Christmas its simply replacing the name with a symbol of his sacrifice. (Now when it comes to me mixing my metaphors between Christmas and Easter... I suppose that's a burden I'll just have to bear).