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Who Put the X into Xmas?
What goes through your mind when you see the word "Christmas" abbreviated to Xmas?
You might think it's an irreverent way to refer to one of the most important holidays on the Western calendar. You might think it's laziness on the part of advertizers and manufacturers. You might think it's an inevitable consequence of our desire to crucify the English language, much like the use of text speak on cellphones. But the truth is something completely different - and delightfully unexpected.
To find out where it all began, we have to go back in time and examine its usage in a number of different languages.
The Origins of Xmas
Believe it or not, the reference to Christmas as "Xmas" dates back to as early as 1100. To find out how it developed, let's look at the roots of the full word.
The word Christmas is generally accepted to refer to Christ Mass, a religious celebration of the birth of Christ. We can break the word into its two constituent bits; the first bit is Christ, which is self explanatory, and the second is -mas, which is an Old English term for Mass derived from Latin.
So half of the word has origins in the Latin language - but what about the other half? That we get from the Greeks, whose word for Christ (Χριστός) begins with the letter Chi - which is equivalent to X in English. Handwritten abbreviations for the term, such as Xtemass, came about because of the crossover from one language to another.
Many variants of the word Christmas have existed throughout the centuries. The name Christ was historically shortened to Xt and to simply X, so that the word "Xmas" seems a natural extension of that practice.
It was written as "Xp̄es mæsse" in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1100, and appears as "X'temmas" in 1551. Lewis Carroll, Lord Byron and Samuel Coleridge used the term in the 19th century, while Oliver Wendell Holmes included it in a letter dated 1923.
Many Christians abhor the use of the abbreviation, feeling that this is an attempt to take "Christ" out of Christmas and take us even further away from the true meaning of the occasion. Some modern institutions, including the BBC and The New York Times, agree with them, implying that the abbreviated spelling should be considered casual and should never be used for formal or public communication.
It's surprising to see the abbreviation used in a Christmas card as in the picture at the beginning of this article, particularly back in 1910 when the card was produced. The 1948 edition of Vogue's Book of Etiquette states that the word Xmas should never be used in greeting cards.
So now we can see that Xmas is not irreverent, and it's not a question of laziness. Like many of the traditions associated with Christmas, its origin has become blurred with time. But just because we've lost touch with where it came from doesn't mean we should jump to criticize its usage.
If you think about it, the X in Xmas could be taken as a representation of the cross on which Jesus Christ suffered. Christmas is, of course, a celebration of the birth of Christ; but once you understand the connection to the Greek letter Chi (X) and the need for human beings to continually adapt and recontextualize language, it seems almost inevitable that the term "Xmas" would find its way into the everyday vocabulary.