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Christmas or Xmas?

Published September 20, 2021
Christmas or Xmas?

Is calling Christmas “Xmas” a blasphemy? Today, this term is mainly associated with commerce.

Sometimes, it’s even viewed as an attempt to remove religion from Christmas.

But is the term “Xmas” actually insulting for Christians? The answer to this question lies in the term history

While the word is commonly considered modern, it has been around for centuries.

And the truth is, “Xmas” was used by numerous famous and respected people who certainly had some knowledge of linguistics. But the perception of this word has changed in the 20h century.

Today, writing style guides and dictionaries recommend refraining from using “Xmas” in a formal context.

But nearly none of these guides explains where the word was derived from and why it’s seen as informal.

One may argue that any abbreviation, including “Xmas,” is informal or even disrespectful for such an important religious holiday.

But the origin and historical uses of “Xmas” show that the situation isn’t that straightforward.

Why Is It Christmas?

The word “Christmas” is, in truth, a reasonably modern version. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s a blend of words “Christ” and “mass.”

The word “Christ” stems from Greek “Christos,” which translates as “Messiah.” In Judaism, Messiah is the name of a king who’s meant to deliver the Jewish nation.

The word “mass,” in turn, is derived from a Latin word “missa,” translating as “Eucharist.” Eucharist means giving, grateful, thanksgiving.

Another definition of “Eucharist” is “a ritual of eating bread and wine in memory of Jesus.”

Before the word “Christmas” existed, people used the Old English version, “Cristesmasse,” which later transformed into “Cristemasse” in Middle English.

The first written mention of the Old English version dates to 1038.

Other Names of Christmas

Christmas isn’t the only name of the holiday celebrating Christ’s birth. The English language also features a different word: “Nativity.”

This word is comprised of Latin “nativus,” meaning “arisen by birth,” or Old French “nativité.”

So, the word “Nativity” indicates the birth of someone but doesn’t specify Christ, unlike the word “Christmas.”

The French word “Noël” is also sometimes used in English instead of “Christmas.” Its meaning is similar to that of “Nativity,” as it’s derived from Latin “natalis,” meaning “birth.”

In Scandinavia, the pagan winter solstice festival was called “Yule,” and to this day, Christmas that replaced pagan holidays is often called this way.

The origin of the word “Yule” is debated, but it likely comes from Old Norse “jol” borrowed from Old French “jolif.”

“Jolif” later transformed into modern French “joli,” translating as pretty, festive, jolly.

Sometimes, “Yuletide” is used instead of short “Yule.” “Tide” stands for “time,” so “Yuletide” means “jolly time.”

This word has an entirely different context than “Christmas.” While “Christmas” describes the winter holiday as religious, “Yuletide” simply means a nice time during the winter solstice.

Read more about Christmas Tradition: kwanzaa, christmas colors, traditional christmas dinner, merry christmas, and hanukkah.

X for Christ

Alright, “Christmas” isn’t the only legitimate word for holiday celebrating Christ’s birth. But what about “Xmas”?

Despite a common misconception, the term isn’t an attempt to remove Christ from Christmas. The history of this abbreviation is much more respectable and older than you may think.

“X” in “Xmas” comes from the Greek letter “X” that reads as “chi.” It’s the first letter in Greek word “Χριστός,” or “Christos.” Just like in the word “Christmas,” “Christos” translates as “Messiah.”

The definition of “Messiah” is a savior or leader of a specific group of people. And Jesus Christ fits this definition perfectly, as he’s considered to be the savior and king of Christians.

As for the part “mas,” it’s derived from Latin “missa,” in English “Eucharist.”

The letter “X” has also been used in Greek as a symbol of a cross. It was used in combination with the letter “P” or “rho,” forming a Christogram “XP,” or “chi-rho.” These are the two first letters of the word “Χριστός.”

Such an abbreviation can be found on numerous Orthodox icons. It was also used by Roman Emperor Constantine I. In late antiquity, the chi-rho symbol was carved on Domitila sarcophagus in Rome.

Xmas First Mentions

The word “Xmas” has been in use in the English language since the 16th century. Notably, the first mention of “Xmas” dates to 1551.

To provide you a frame of reference, the famous poem by Clement Clark Moore, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” that serves as a base for the modern perception of Santa, was published in 1837, three centuries later.

The use of this word was documented again in 1755 in Bernard Ward’s History of Saint Edmund’s College.

George Woodward, a British diplomat, used “Xmas” in his official letter in 1753. If British diplomats considered this word respectful enough, perhaps, you’re safe to use it, too.

Infamous Lord George Byron, a British politician and poet, also didn’t mind using the word “Xmas.” One of the documented mentions of “Xmas” by Lord Byron dates to 1811. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, also used it in 1864.

But not only the British used “Xmas.” The Royal Standard of English Dictionary published in 1800 in Boston states that “Xmas” is an abbreviation for “Christmas.” American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. also used the term in 1923.

In other words, since the beginning of the 19th century, the word “Xmas” has been widely used by British and American authors, politics, and other respectful people.

Today, however, the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage states that “Xmas” is merely used for advertising purposes where its short form is beneficial.

Xmas Criticism

However, the nice explanation of the Greek origin of “Xmas” doesn’t convince everyone of its appropriateness.

So, the word is banned by numerous writing style guides, including New York Times, The Guardian, and BBC. These newspapers never use the shortened version of “Christmas.”

American fashion editor Millicent Fenwick in Vogue’s Book of Etiquette published in 1948, states that the word “Xmas” “should never be used in greeting cards.”

If that’s not enough, The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage insists that the form “Xmas” is informal and must be restricted to use in a formal context, such as for greeting cards and newspaper headlines.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, a style guide for religious writers, in turn, acknowledges the ancient origin of “Xmas.” Still, the guide restricts the spelling for formal writing.

An Attempt to Remove Religion from Christmas?

Talking about criticism, Meldrim Thomson, a New Hampshire Governor in 1977, issued a press release asking journalists to retain the “Christ” in “Christmas.” He even called “Xmas” a pagan spelling, which is very far from the truth.

In 1957, the religious newspaper News and Views issued by the Church League of America and founded by George Washington published an article regarding the issue.

Titled “X = The Unknown Quantity,” the article stated that the use of “Xmas” is a “blasphemous omission of the name of Christ” and that “X” is associated with unknown quantities.

The word “Xmas” was never considered as controversial as it is today. People in the 16th-19th centuries had no issue using both long and short versions of “Christmas.” But today, many consider calling Christ “X” disrespectful.

This point of view makes sense in a way. Firstly, the letter “X” is only an abbreviation of the word “Χριστός.” Secondly, this word isn’t even English. So, should we leave the term “Xmas” for Greeks?

Nowadays, Christmas moves further away from God and closer towards simply becoming a fun winter holiday is hard to argue.

The connection of “Xmas” with commercialism doesn’t help its reputation, even though Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage could argue that, stating that the association “has done nothing for its reputation.”

On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t declare how Christ’s birthday should be called. Calling it “Xmas” certainly isn’t a sin. Perhaps, the propriety of “Xmas” usage is a question of context.

If a person using the term doesn’t know its origin and simply wants to shorten the holiday name, this may be seen as a disrespectful attempt to remove religion from “Christmas.”

But, if a person using the term is familiar with its history, there’s nothing wrong with using this version.

The meaning of “Xmas” is the exact same as that of “Christmas.” Considering that the shortened version, the chi-rho symbol, was used to represent Christ by the church for centuries, such an abbreviation doesn’t seem to be disrespectful.

Is It Ok to Use Xmas, Then?

Logically speaking, the word “Xmas” is historically correct and has been considered respectful for centuries. Indeed, the word “Christmas,” or its ancient version, has been around for over five centuries longer.

Still, the term “Xmas” has been widely used since the 16th century by politics, famous authors, and lawyers.

Furthermore, the abbreviation “XP” can be found on icons and was favored by Roman Emperors back when Christianity appeared. So what else could be a better proof of propriety of the term “Xmas”?

Still, in the modern world, the term is considered controversial and merely associated with commercial use.

For this reason, it may be best to stick with “Christmas” for formal use, as recommended by dictionaries and style guides. The people you talk to may not be familiar with the term history and can consider such a name blasphemous.

But there’s nothing wrong with using “Xmas” in personal conversations, advertisements, or among friends. Optionally, you can acquaint others with the real meaning of “Xmas” to fight the stigma associated with it.

Image credit: Pixabay

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