Simply put, names, much like the traditions that they represent, have meaning, and to many people, reducing a name is in some way belittling or detracting from the thing that it represents. Much in the same way that people feel referring to Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day” is an attempt to reduce (or replace) the primary reason for the holiday – giving thanks for blessings – with the eponymous bird that is typically the focal point of most American tables, today’s word stands accused of the same for Christmas. So, to echo Charlie Brown, let’s take a moment and, before we pass judgement, find out what Xmas is all about.
Virtually all of us are familiar with Xmas being used in place of Christmas, often when space limitations are a factor; however, the initial reason for this particular shortening often remains overlooked or unexplained.
While we all know that, in our term, -mas is a shortened form of “mass”, which is a religious service, it is the X that causes the problem. Well, actually, the X isn’t the problem, the problem is that it’s a Greek Christogram, and we largely don’t understand that anymore.
When Christianity was in its infancy, largely confined to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, a large portion of the faithful’s communication occurred in Greek; moreover, symbols played a large part in communicating ideas (as they still do today). In Greek, the name Christ comes across as Christos, which, when using the Greek alphabet, appears as Χριστός, with the “X” giving a “ch” sound and the “p” sounding as an “r”. Additionally, to symbolically communicate “Christ”, the first two letters were superimposed to create the chi-rho, much like we would use a monogram today.
As far as usage is concerned, while we typically think of our term as being a product of the last century or so, in reality, it goes back about 500 years. The first recorded usage that we would recognize comes from Edmund Lodge’s 1791 work, Illustrations of British History, Biography, and Manners, which documents a 1551 usage of the term, stating: “From X’temmas next following” (“From Christmas next following”); moreover, the typical “Xmas” first was used around 1755, via Bernard Ward’s History of St. Edmund’s College (1893), stating: “In ye Xmas and Whitsuntide Vacations.” For overall usage of the X or Xp as referring to Christ, that can be traced back almost a thousand years, with one of the first mentions coming in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which, for the year 1021, records that Bishop Elfgar, the abundant giver of alms, died “On Xp̄es mæsse uhtan”, meaning “On Christmas Day morning”.
On first glance, and without what you’ve hopefully just read here, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the “X” in Xmas is more than just an attempt to shorten the name to meet specific spatial requirements. Indeed, you won’t have to go very far in order to find people who believe that Christmas has become too big, too expensive, too commercial, and too secular – and looking at the way that Christmas was celebrated 10 or 20 years ago or more, it’s hard to say that these people are really wrong in their assessment. Nevertheless, in this instance, Xmas isn’t any attempt to make Christmas about anything other than its original and true meaning, it’s just another way of writing the word.