Forty years ago, when I was in grammar School, the militant secularism of today was almost unknown. The war on Christmas so common today was lampooned in those days by cartoonish figures like the “Grinch who stole Christmas,” or “Scrooge” in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Back in those days there were laments that Christmas was too focused on toys and Santa and not enough on Jesus. That, however, was an internal Church and family matter. But in the secular world, Christmas was still the common term used everywhere: Christmas trees, Christmas sales, Christmas holiday, Christmas break. It’s Christmastime in the city!
In the public schools I attended we sang Christmas Carols at the annual Christmas concert. And I don’t just mean the secular “Jingle Bells…Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” variety, but even strongly Christian and religious songs: Joy to the Lord the Lord is is come!…..O Come All Ye Faithful….Come let us Adore him, Christ the Lord!….What Child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping. In High School (in the 1970s) the Choir even sang O Magnum Mysterium by Victoria. Very high church…and all very religious. It was Christmas after all!
The rampant and militant secularism of today which banishes the word “Christmas,” banishes Christmas trees, Santa, and even the word “holiday” (since it is rooted in Holy day) becomes: Happy Winter Festival to you too! That sort of militant secularism, and triumphalist atheism was unknown forty years ago except in some very limited circles.
And yet during those times there was a common usage of the abbreviation “Xmas” It was common to get a Christmas Card and someone wrote, “Merry Xmas.” I don’t recall any of us thought of it as a secular thing in those days. I remember, as a child, asking my mother where the expression came from. She explained that “X” was the first letter in Greek for “Christ” and she promised to show me the symbol next Sunday in Church. Sure enough the next Sunday she showed it to me on the Church wall. It was really what looked to me like a P and and X. It was the “Chi – Rho” symbol you see at the top right of this post. Chi (X) and Rho (R) being the first two letters for Christ (x= ch in English and what looked like a P to me was really an “r” in Greek).
From Sacred to Secular – So Xmas WAS a Christian abbreviation for Christmas. It hasn’t been until more recent years that I have heard some claim that Xmas is an attempt to “keep Christ out of Christmas.” It is understandable that some would think in this was since, to the uninitiated, it looks like Christ has literally been “X’d out.” It takes a little explaining to recognize Christ in that “X” and, as world becomes more secular, and many Catholics are not taught the meaning of ancient symbols any longer, it certainly does look like Christ is missing from “Xmas.” Historically he is not really missing at all. But this not well understood.
Historical Roots of the “X” – The use of “X” for Christ comes from a time prior to the printing press when books were literally “manuscripts,” that is, “written by hand.” Abbreviations in those times were common. In the ancient manuscripts of Gregorian Chant there are many abbreviations like sclorum = In saecula saeculorum, Dne = Domine, ala = alleluia. In many manuscripts “X” or the “chi rho” symbol were used for Christ. Ink, paper and time were precious and Abbreviations. To some extent these have returned in the text world: LOL, IMHO, CUL8r, etc.
So “Xmas” does not really have secular roots or imply some intentional omission of Christ. It is an ancient abbreviation.
However, many today do take exception to its use and it CAN in fact be an attempt to “X” Christ out of Christmas by some. In virulently secular times where it is considered acceptable to exhibit outright hostility to Christmas and Jesus, it would seem Xmas is problematic. Other things being equal, we want to be as explicit as possible that it is Jesus Christ to whom we refer. We should also be sensitive to the fact that many are bothered by the term Xmas even if we are not.
Advice – Generally speaking I avoid the term today even though, due to my training, it does not bother me. Tactically speaking I also avoid it due to the fact that we need to unambiguously announce Jesus and “X” just doesn’t do that anymore. However, we should also avoid being too easily offended in a matter such as this where usage has recently shifted. We may take offense where none is intended. Thin-skinned Christians are not helpful to turning the tide of anti-Christian fervor today.
So, in the end, perhaps a middle ground regarding the term “Xmas.” Avoid its use for the reasons stated but do not easily take offense regarding it either. There are bigger battles.
This video is from the Merriam Webster site. They have many videos and interesting words studies here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/index.htm