One of the popular indicators of the supposed war on Christmas is the use of the abbreviation Xmas. The well motivated, if grating, “Don’t take Christ out of Christmas” alludes not so subtly to the abbreviation. The former Anglican bishop of Blackburn, Alan Chesters, advised his clergy against using it. Jane Wyles, editor of the Anglican C Magazine, summed up much Christian sentiment when she criticized the “glib way people substitute Christ with this anonymous ‘X’. It’s all part of the PC picture—Christianity gets squashed into a smaller and smaller corner.”
Others have also declared hostility to the term: Style guides for the Times and the Guardian rule it out. Even our proofreaders have taken up arms in the war against Xmas—the term is absent from this magazine’s pages.
Xmas is, though, a much more venerable abbreviation than many suppose. The X signifies the Greek letter chi, which was traditionally combined with P, or rho, to signify the name of Christ. Constantine instructed his soldiers to scrawl the letters on their shields before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, his victory in which led to the unlikely establishment of a Christian empire. Far from a symbol of secularization, then, Xmas carries echoes of the clash of battle that inaugurated political Christendom.
The abbreviation’s use in English dates back to 1021, when an Anglo-Saxon scribe saved himself space by writing XPmas. The P was dropped but the term soldiered on: Coleridge used Xmas in his letter writing. The wags at Punch pressed it into service as a verb, Xmassing (one imagines the verb would get more use if the WASPs who currently spend their time summering, wintering, and weekending were somewhat more observant).
Nor did Xmas’ religious overtones fade away over the many centuries of its use. Our modern-day Fowler, Bryan A. Garner (who I thank for recommending my post on Merry v. Happy Christmas) defends the abbreviation on historical grounds. Poet, translator, and etymologist John Ciardi, cited in Garner’s Modern American Usage, writes that the Christian echoes of Xmas are so strong that “illiterate Jews at Ellis Island refused to sign with an X, instead signing with an O, in Yiddish kikl, little circle.”
Still, there might be something to viewing Xmas as a sign of secularization. The cultural, religious, communal traditions we see as especially embodied by Christmas have been undermined by the rise of commerce and cult of efficiency. The desire to get from point A to B by the shortest possible route, irrespective of the charms of traditional byways, fuels our mania for abbreviation. The hatred for Xmas, then, may stem in part from an innate suspicion of the attempt to render all things ancient and beautiful modern, cheap, and sleek.
Nostalgia, though, is no replacement for history, nor can we attend only to accidental associations while disregarding etymology. That Xmas sounds for a time more commercial than Constantinian is no reason to give up on it use, not if we expect the Christian faith to outlast capitalist society. At one time Xmas may evoke the clang of Roman steel, at another the cash register’s ring, yet no process of secularization has succeeded in preventing it from pointing us to that first and final fact: the song of angel chorus, the lowing ox and braying ass, the naked babe’s cry as his mother swaddles he who would leave his burial clothes behind.