by Hugh Rawson
Many people – including leading authorities on language on both sides of the Atlantic – frown on the use of Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas. For example, Eric Partridge, the British lexicographer who did so much to popularize the study of slang, declared in his book on style, Usage & Abusage, that Xmas is “barely allowable in its common use in writing and printing” and is “intolerable in the pronunciation, Exmas.” The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language came to the same conclusion, noting that “In spite of a long and respectable history, today Xmas is offensive to many, perhaps because of its associations with advertising. It is not used in formal writing.”
A common belief is that Xmas “takes the Christ out of Christmas” – that this is part of the so-called “war on Christmas” intended to suppress traditional Christian symbols. But this is a misapprehension, the result of not knowing the origin of the abbreviation. The X in Xmas stands for the Greek chi, the first letter of Christ’s name when spelled in Greek: XPIΣTOΣ (equivalent in Latin letters to Kristos or Christos). X and XP have been used as abbreviations for “Christ” for about a thousand years, either alone or as the first syllable of other words, such as Xpēn, christen; Xpēnned, christened; Xtian, Christian, and Xtianity, Christianity. The abbreviation also crops up occasionally in personal names; for example, Xpher, Christopher; Xene, Christine, and Xtina, Christina. In The Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks the development of words over time, the X as an abbreviation for Christmas is dated to 1551 in the form of X’temmas and to 1755 as the modern Xmas.
The second syllable of Christmas comes, of course, from the name of the Roman Catholic religious service, the mass. The service also appears in the names of other church festivals, such as Candlemas and Michaelmas. Curiously for such an old and well-known word, the origin of mass as the name of the religious service is not entirely clear. Most likely, it reflects church-goers’ ignorance of Latin in the late 4th and early 5th centuries of the Christian Era. Traditionally, the service ends with the priest saying Ite, missa est: “Go, it is the dismissal.” Non-Latin-speaking worshippers probably misunderstood missa to refer to the service itself, with the result that the priest’s parting words were interpreted as “Go, the mass is done.” At any rate, Xmas is by no means a recent innovation. It has a long religious history. Any real objections to it must stem from its overuse in Christmas advertising by copywriters in need of short and punchy words to fit limited spaces in newspapers and other media.
Ironically, for all the muttering about the “war on Christmas,” complete with complaints when the generalized “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” are used instead of “Merry Christmas,” the most distinctive elements of traditional Christmas celebrations have non-Christian origins. Mistletoe is associated with the human sacrifices of the Druids, holly with ancient Germanic tribes and Romans. Meanwhile, the custom of decorating trees at Christmas time dates only to the mid-19th century in England; it was imported from Germany shortly after Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. More than two thousand years ago, the Romans also decorated trees during their December festival in honor of Saturn, a Roman God. (One gets a sense of the goings-on in Rome from the word saturnalia, now meaning a time of unrestrained revelry and sexual activity.) Even the date of Christmas is essentially heathen: December 25 was selected by church fathers in the 5th century because it coincided with the winter solstice, the saturnalia, and other pagan festivals. Historically, then, the supposed “war on Christmas” really amounts to a war on pre-Christian customs.