Dear Language Nerd,
I have some Christian friends who get really upset when they see “Xmas” in signs and things. Why do people write that, and why do others find it offensive?
The dislike of “Xmas” tends to stem from the feeling that it makes Christmas too secular. First, and get ready for me to state the obvious, “Xmas” doesn’t have “Christ” clearly written in it (though see below), so some people worry it signifies a lack of interest in the religious significance of the holiday. Secondly, a lot of the associations of X are of anonymity, as when people sign an X if they can’t write a name, so there’s a feeling that Christ is being, well, x-ed out, or hidden. This sentiment is encouraged by the fact that Xmas is most often seen in store signs, advertisements, and other commercial productions.
Historically, Xmas is what it appears to be – an abbreviation for Christmas. However, it’s actually a reverential and pious abbreviation, not a secular one.
Surprised? Well, does this look familiar?
Yes? No? How about in these action shots?
This symbol is the Chi-Rho, seen here in beautiful Trinity Episcopal Church, in Mobile, Alabama. It’s used around the world in several varieties of Christianity. The Chi-Rho is made by smushing together two Greek letters, Χ and ρ, which are (you guessed it) chi and rho, respectively. The first makes a “k” sound, the second a “r” sound.
Why these two letters? They’re the first two letters in Χριστός kristos, the Greek word that we get “Christ” from (which was itself a translation of מָשִׁיחַ mashiah “anointed,” the Hebrew word that gave us “Messiah”). These and other letter-smushes were used to mark Jesus in early paintings, back when few people had heard of him and your average Julius might need help to pick him out in a holy crowd. Artists in the first millennium sometimes put Jesus in with figures from Greek or Roman mythology, and in the same way that a trident in the corner marked Poseidon, writing the Chi-Rho or just the letters Χρ helped an early Gentile recognize Jesus. These symbols continued to be used well into mediaeval times, especially in iconography.
When the Greek letters arrived in English, they became XP, X, or Xt. In the oldest Anglo-Saxon text we have, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, you can read about the Xtians studying Xtianity together and celebrating “Xp̄es mæsse,” “Christ’s mass.” Later monks loved these sorts of abbreviations – transcribing was difficult and vellum was scarce, so every little shortening mattered. Because of them, Xmas stuck around, and lots of other short-hands still in use in English today come from mediaeval scribes, including the ampersand (&) and the abbreviations i.e. and e.g.
So Xmas has a devout history, though whether this is on the mind of the store owner putting up his “CRAZY XMAS BARGAINS” signs is open to debate. The “Xtian” styling has achieved a new burst of popularity recently in forums across the internet, so there’s a chance that in the future Xmas will be known once more as a religious way of talking about Christmas.
The Language Nerd
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This week’s references include:
My favorite little online etymology-finder – www.etymonline.com
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/657
A bit about mediaeval manuscripts – http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course/course/abbrevtn.htm
The 44th episode of the excellent BBC podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects looks at a floor mosaic that has Bellerophon and a chimera as well as Jesus, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/VfupdXVjTM6crACGDU-6uA. Jesus has a large Chi-Rho behind his head in the mosaic.
Many thanks to Trinity Church for letting me come take photos!
And, of course, Merry Xmas!
UPDATE: Less than ten hours after I posted this, Trinity Church was hit by a tornado and suffered huge damage. The parish hall has lost a wall, and the church is swaying and in danger of collapsing at any moment. There is a difficult and lengthy recovery ahead for this parish, so please consider donating. You can find out how to at their website here.
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