Dallas, TX –
A note circulating on the Internet claims that the abbreviation "Xmas" is an attack on Christianity and a conspiracy to remove Christ from Christmas. The note doesn't say who is conspiring but urges readers not to use the abbreviation or to patronize any business that uses "Xmas" in its advertisements.
For clarity in the spoken medium of radio, I'm saying "Xmas." But that's only so you'll know what I'm talking about. Ordinarily, when we see the written abbreviation X-M-A-S, we would pronounce it "Christmas" just as with such abbreviations as "D-E-C" or "E-T-C" or "C-O" we say December, or etcetera, or company not "deck" or "ets" or "co."
According to theologians and historians, the X in Xmas, far from taking Christ out of Christmas, actually puts Christ in. That "X" figure is an ancient, well-known symbol of Christ and the cross, and the abbreviation Xmas had a long history in the church before it moved into general use.
Experts say that in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was first written, the symbol for the first letters of the word "Christ" resembles the Roman alphabet's X, and that the early church adopted the X figure to represent Christ. Some theologians say that the practice of using the single letter X to represent Christ began in the first century. Others say it was widespread by the 1200s.
Whatever the evidence for those claims, the invention of the printing press in 1436 brought hard evidence that the abbreviation "Xmas" was in common use, and modern dictionaries say it was widespread by the 1500s. In the early days of printing, abbreviations were prevalent because typesetting was done by hand and was both time-consuming and expensive. After the church began using the abbreviation X for the word Christ in religious publications, it moved into general use in newspapers and other printed material.
And "Xmas" became an accepted way of printing "Christmas." No sacrilege intended, and in those days, none taken.
"Xmas" is seldom seen in printed media these days, however, not only because it looks ugly, and grammarians frown on it as shoddy, and Christians may see it as irreverent, but as we've seen because it's misunderstood.
The main lesson we can take from the controversy over the abbreviation "Xmas" is that sometimes we see conspiracy where none exists. It's useful to know that the practice of using X in place of Christ's name springs from religious rather than from secular practice. And knowing it might reduce by a tiny fraction the general din of contention especially welcome in this season of peace.
Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.
If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.