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Is the Abbreviation "Xmas" Really a Secular Slight of Christmas? Or is it Something Else?

December 12, 2010

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

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Comments (49)

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  1. miss says:

    very interesting

  2. Nick says:

    “If evils increase, the devotion of the People of God should also increase.”
    – Pope Paul VI

  3. ac says:

    I tend to refer to Christmas as “Xmas” in writing when referring to my own holiday celebrations. It isn’t a slight, but merely semantics; the reasoning being i am an agnostic and therefore don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. It is more or less a family tradition to me, being together with loved ones a top priority. Although i do find the story of Christmas to be quite beautiful, i lack the credulity to embrace belief but never disrespect those that do believe.

    This was an interesting article, as i really do enjoy the insight on Christian beliefs, as well as the short etymology lesson. I had always imagined the “x” was a harmless (and pragmatic) abbreviation but never knew where or how it originated. Thanks for the info.

    • Thanks for your addition. I pray that faith will find you but understand your journey!

      • Tim H says:

        \ I tend to refer to Christmas as “Xmas” in writing … the reasoning being i am an agnostic and therefore don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. \

        With all due respect ac, I find this humorous,

        One could never use the phrase “Once and for all” as its origin is biblical – it was Christ himself who died “Once for all.” Our money and the founding documents of our nation bear God’s name. Our western calendar is based on counting time up to and since the birth of Christ. Santa is a secularization of a Catholic saint.

        Even the word “Christmas” itself refers to the Mass of Christ. The fact that the first thing out of most non-Christian’s mouth when they get angry is the G.D. and that the Lord’s name is invoked when people become frightened bears witness.

        What can one do? Move to a cave?

        -Tim-

      • ac says:

        Yes, i know, much of western history and thought is based on and organized around Christian fundamentals. That wasn’t the basis for any supposed argument i was making. Your argument suggests that i may be missing the point, but i don’t believe i am. Certain things (the calendar, what is printed on money) are out of my control and beyond moot and “living in a cave” is not a realistic option. Through meditation, writing, and considerate thought i’ve become agnostic. This doesn’t mean i wish to obliterate all the religion going on around me, or that i ignore it. I made a personal choice to write a word a certain way, more out of respect for the religious folk, knowing that i don’t celebrate Christ and it would be disingenuous for me to advertise as if i did.

  4. Mark says:

    My Mum told me the same when I was younger. She still uses ‘Xt’ as an abbreviation for ‘Christ’ when writing her class notes (she’s a teacher). And Father, I think you really want an abbreviation, you need “CUL8r” for “See you later”!

    http://therecusanthousemate.blogspot.com/

  5. Erica says:

    Interesting! Thank you!

  6. Matthew says:

    Msgr:
    Two points: First we do not live in ancient times. Words change. I would no more tell someone to have a “gay old time” than I would tell them to have a “Merry Xmas”. I wouid also be interested not at how this expression was understood by some pious Christians in the 1970’s but what was the motive of those who began to use this ‘abbreviation’ in the 1970’s – why revive an obscure medieval shorthand?
    Second, I respectfully disagree – ‘thin-skinned Christians’ is EXACTLY what we need. How many newspapers print insulting pictures of Mohammed? If we had a more muscular Christianity how many museums would dare to exhibit crucifixes immersed in urine or crawling with ants?
    Matthew

    • I think we are agreed on the first point. I am not calling for a revivial of it. I think I was quite clear on that in the article.

      As to the second point, I think there is a battle to be fought against anti-Christian, anti-Catholic bigotry, however I wouldn’t fight it on this point. To be thin-skinned doesn’t mean we never fight back, but it does mean we don’t take offense at smaller things. Given the history, I think Xmas is probably a smaller thing for the reasons stated. I’d rather fight on the legal silencing of Christians and Christian display. I’d rather fight on the exclusion of Christian heritage from our history books. I’d rather fight against redefining marriage and other moral “redefinitions.” I’d rather against those who declare the proclamation of the historical and Biblical faith to be “hate” and subject to hate-crime legislation. etc. I don’t know if it is thin-skinned to fight against those things. To me, thin-skined means getting upset about smaller things and taking offense too easily or where no offense is intended.

  7. David says:

    When taking lecture notes during my masters in theology, I always used the chi-rho as an abbreviation for anything beginning in Christ: Christ, Christian, Christianity, etc. Later, when writing my dissertation, I set Word’s auto-correct feature to do the same thing, so all I had to type was, for example, Xianity to get Christianity. Just like they once did for the scribes, these abbreviations saved me a lot of time.

    In a related vein, the university where I did my masters had both a Dominican house of studies and an Oratorian parish. The Oratorians always wore the biretta during Sunday Mass and would doff it at the Divine Name. Now, the Dominican prior knew about this practice; he was a holy and learned man, but he also had a keen sense of humor. One Sunday, he was invited to give the homily at the Oratorians’ main Sunday Mass. Cheeky fellow that he was, he deliberately inserted “Christ” as many times as he could in to the homily, until the Oratrians all finally got tired of doffing and just took off their birettas for the rest of the homily!

    In both cases, it just struck me how frequently we say/write the Divine Name, once we start paying attention to every instance of it.

    • We have a rule of sorts in the Old Latin Mass that after the Third time in a homily that a preacher uses the Holy Name, we are no longer required to tip the biretta. Not sure if this is a rubric per se but it has the force of custom in most places, at least outside of religious communities.

  8. Jim says:

    Thanks for this post Father. I’ve always been offended by the use of Xmas even before the secular assault on Christmas.. Now I will accept it, but not use it as you advise.

    • Yes, that is the basic point and I appreciate you stating it clearly. I have been surprised at the negative tone directed at me by a few of the comments here wherein they (unlike you) don’t seem to understand that I am saying don’t use Xmas. However, it is good to at least know the history of it and realize that perhaps not everyone means offense.

  9. Daniel says:

    Thanks for your articles Msgr., they are always helpful and illuminating. I have made a habit of reading here for some time!

  10. J says:

    My Dad calls it X-mas, and it’s not because of the Chi-Rho. It’s because he hates Christianity, and especially the Catholic version of it.

  11. Howard says:

    I’m leaning more and more towards calling the religious feast the Nativity, and following homestarrunner.com in calling the secular festivities Decemberween. I refuse, however, to wish anyone “Happy Hollow Days” — I won’t have any part in hollowing out the days that should be hallowed.

    Likewise, I think we should imitate our brothers from the East and say, rather than “Merry Christmas!”, “Christ is born!” “Glorify Him!” We have to push back.

  12. Margaret says:

    Very interesting reading. I don’t use the term xmas, but I do use C’mas at times, as I have arthritis and CTS in both hands and it saves on writing/typing when the pain is bad. I hope that is not offensive, as it is not my intent.

  13. Scott says:

    The point that is missed by Monsignor is that we are writing in English, not Greek. The arguments presented are spin and simply an excuse for not being devoted to the sacredness of the Holy Name. I do not see any ranking of blasphemies anywhere. The Holy Name should always be upheld as sacred.

  14. Scott says:

    The point that is missed by Monsignor is that we are writing in English, not Greek. The arguments presented are spin and simply an excuse for not being devoted to the sacredness of the Holy Name. I do not see any ranking of blasphemies anywhere. The Holy Name should always be upheld as sacred. Is replacing the Holy Name with an “X” not taking the Lords name in vain?

  15. Daniel Latinus says:

    I recall a short period in which “X-mas” was used to describe the secular celebration of Christmas that had become untethered from the Holy Day.

  16. Jon says:

    As Christians, I think we’d send the message best by respecting people’s preferences:

    For your secular-oriented friends in particular: a homemade “Happy Hallmark Day” card with enough free-floating “cheer” (glitter) to fill their house and hair ’till next year 🙂 … but no present – include a footnote on the card indicating that you’re already over budget.

  17. Dean says:

    Although the Knights of Columbus have long mounted the “Keep Christ in Christmas” drive, this Knight was taken by the fact that our Bishop sometimes signed letters with “Yours in Xto”.
    Will be doing my part to keep Xto in Xmas, while ignoring the Winter Festival greeters, and the blatant commercialism.
    BTW, my friend from Kenya is at a loss to explain, why “Kwanzaa”?

  18. kelso says:

    Generally speaking, people who put Merry Xmas on a card do it out of laziness. That’s a sad commentary, especially when Catholics do it. Forget the Chi Rho argument as no Catholic intends a Chi Rho or they’d write the letter X with a P going through it, not just an X..

  19. Benjamin Baxter says:

    Sadly, the fact is that atheists have hijacked the abandoned Xmas to specifically deny the Christ in Christmas.

  20. Mary says:

    The Catholic website Xt3.com also uses this abbreviation for Christ – Xt3 stands for Christ in the 3rd Millennium 🙂

  21. helen says:

    Thank you I never knew about the Chi Ro I never knew about the symbol much but thought it was Christ because the lamb is often protrayed with it.

    Thank you and Happy Christmas!

    Helen

  22. Andrea says:

    Whenever I see “Xmas” I laugh to myself because I heard as a child that “X” was an ancient symbol for “Christ,” and was sometimes used as a Sign of the Cross. I also laugh when I see or hear “holiday,” because it very simply and clearly means “holy day.”

  23. Nick O'dEmmus says:

    Interestingly, one could also argue that “X” is a kind of cross – admittedly not the “T” of Jesus’ cross, but more the saltire of St Andrew’s cross; but nonetheless a cross, and hence another clearly Christian symbol. Perhaps we could also refer to Christmas as “t-mas” ? 🙂

  24. Shannon says:

    I love that this is being brought to people’s attention and for me it shows a lack of education. People assume something that they were taught and never actually research anything on their own. Facts are facts. Thank you.

  25. Shannon says:

    Thank you! I am glad you wrote this. Peoples lack of education bothers me. You should never believe things that you are just taught as a child without researching for yourself.

  26. aquinasadmirer says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m wondering about changing X-mas with the Chi-Rho…how about “Merry ☧-mas”?

  27. anon says:

    Thirty years ago, I got a detention in Catholic school b/c I wrote Xmas on a card. Wish I’d been armed with your info.

  28. David says:

    (Being another David than he above): I freely use ‘Xmas’ (or ‘X-mas’) fully conscious of it being a ‘Chi’, and delight, ‘in season and out of season’, to take the opportunity of explaining why (which, in writing, takes more time and effort than any saving-by-abbreviation).

    I would love to know more of the details of its history (combining Greek letter with English word formed from ‘missa’ and spelled with one ‘s’), but have no sense that it has ever completely gone out of its clear, ‘Christos’ use, or been wholly successfully hijacked by ‘anti’s’, or for that matter reapplied (as Daniel Latinus suggests: I wonder how much a couple little playfully serious journalistic essays by C.S. Lewis may have contributed to this ‘making-distinctions’ use?). Incidentally, how can there be anything inherently more disrespectful about it than about such splendid monograms as the various forms of the ‘Chi-Rho’?

    Nick O’dEmmus’s suggestion is an interesting one, when you also think that the Omega of the Greek alphabet corresponds to a letter transcribable as ‘T’ in the Hebrew alphabet – though perhaps “A&O-mas” (or a Hebraizing equivalent: “A&T-mas” – ?) might be better. (Carolling, I just sang “A and O and O and A” in a modernized version of the mediaeval “Unto Us a Son is Born”…)

    The St. Andrew’s Cross tie-in, is also there in “X”. I am reminded of the Chesterton story about the – atheistic, I think it was – who starts noticing crosses everywhere! (I read that in Amsterdam they just replaced the more usual cross on St. Nicholas’s mitre with that of the Patronal St. Andrew – though supposedly to be ‘less likely to offend’! – sorry, if you know it’s a St. Andrew’s Cross, anyone else can find out, too – and should be helped to do so…)

    (Incidentally, I also go on singing “Don we now our gay apparel” – and doing what I can to correct any misimpressions! The “rape” of ‘gay’ may be a small(er) matter, in the scheme of things, but unjust and offensive nonetheless: why should it be surrendered to its abusive hijackers?)

  29. David says:

    Another possible word/symbol-tie-in, might be with the Saint whose Feast was just celebrated on 3 Dec. “Laudate Dominum in sanctis ejus!” (to use the older Vulgate!) How many different ways is his name pronounced ‘in English’, I wonder?

  30. Maria says:

    Does it means that replacing Christ with an x is a choice of conscience?
    Unfortunately today as before the secular world refuses to recognize God in all things. In our days human reason is reduced to justify actions and conform to a multicultural society. Almost 2000 years ago Christ himself was condemned by men with priestly powers who thought that they were justified for crucifying him. In his book On Conscience, Benedict XVI discusses the problem of justification for our actions. The Holy Father uses the Gospel of the Samaritan in the temple where he stands more justified before God than the Pharisee. The problem is that the Pharisee is incapable of feeling guilt, in his mind he has a clear conscience. Before and always, the soul of a self-justified person is insensible to moral corruption like a a blind cannot see.

    Or does it means that replacing Christ with an x is just a matter of words?
    But what Word ? Guilt is to listen to the voice of conscience and recognize the Word of God, that is the Truth. Are we listening to the Word? This Christmas we celebrate the day that God came to the world, the Word was born from the Virgin Mary, the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

  31. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Reminds me of the Ukrainian for Christ, “Xpictoc” (pronounced Khreestos) in the Cyrillic Alpahabet which was adapted from the Greek alphabet by Saint Cyril for use in communication in the Slavonic Language.. The letters, but not the pronounciation, of the Western Alphabet and the Eastern alphabet of Russia are similar here. A rare occurrence.
    The folklore in which I was raised taught me that the capital letter “X” was an alternate spelling of Christ in the early Christianity of Eastern Europe.

  32. David says:

    aquinasadmirer has a fine variant! (though probably easier handwritten for the less cyber-savvy, such as myself…)

    Peter Wolczuk’s note as to how the Cyrillic follows the Greek, here, points out another aspect of richness to this most admirable “X”.

    I got wondering – I remember having heard that the Chi-Rho as pictured above (and in aquinasadmirer’s font) is sometimes (mis)taken for an abbreviation for ‘Pax’ – whether there is ever any deliberate tie-in of ‘Xmas’ with the ‘x’ in Latin words – handsomely used in various monograms, etc. – such as ‘Lux’ and ‘Dux’ and ‘Rex’ and ‘Radix’ – the last three being also prominent titles or descriptions of Our Lord in the Advent Vespers ‘O’ Antiphons ?

  33. Ann Schneider says:

    “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.” I agree entirely.

    My approach: if someone takes the time to send me a card or write me a letter or to put up a display wishing me joy and peace which also bears the term Xmas, I’m just going to assume the best possible intentions. And, I think those who are truly offended by the use of the term Xmas should say a prayer each time they are confronted with the offensive term, ditto Happy Holidays, and the like.

  34. Mark says:

    In referrance (sp), to the above article – This is a Modern Roman Catholic interpretation. On ALL Orthodox Christian Iconography, where our Lord is depicted, His name is abbreviated in ancient Greek – IC XC, quite litterally – “Jesus Christ” !! So, the abbreviation in Greek, X before the word “mas” is a liturgically Orthodox, or ‘correct’ way to signify Christmas !

  35. Mark says:

    The same as the symbol of a fish is used to signify one as being Christian. The symbol of a fish “icthos” in Greek, is a way to signify the name of Jesus ! so IC XC litterally means in ancient Greek, Icthos Christos, or in English< Jesus Christ !!

  36. Fred Orman says:

    I was brought up “Low Church” episcopalian, but have come to love “High Church”. I believe that meaningful Christian Symbols should be encouraged. I attend “Christ The King” in Stone Ridge and a small golden crown inscribed at the join between the P and the X is a perfect and meaningful shorthand for the name of my Church. Most of our symbols are quite beautiful per se and using them regularly may be a way to introduce Christian ideas that would be knee-jerk rejected if printed out. Who can deny that Christian music is catchy? That’s one reason that it is proscribed by the secularists – it sticks with you. Same with symbols! Fred Orman

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