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Shortening 'Christmas' to 'Xmas' is viewed as disrespectful by some Christians. But as Paul Kerensa explains, the term is more Christian than it first appears
(That’s my shorthand for ‘Merry Xmas!’)
(Which is shorthand for ‘Merry Christmas!’)
(Which is shorthand for – well...)
A hundred years after the birth of Christ, there were Christmas celebrations - of a private, secret, solemn sort (like putting on that Christmas Moments with Cliff Richard CD). Two hundred years later, Pope Julius I decreed that December 25 was Christmas, and within four years the occasion was marked proudly and publicly (like putting on the very different Cliff at Christmas CD – a far superior album).
Thirty years later, Christianity became the official state religion, helping Christmas spread east to Greece. Greek culture meant colourful decoration and a version of carolling, as children toured door-to-door with songs and olive branches.
So here’s another olive branch: those Greeks abbreviated ‘Christ’ to their letter ‘X’, or ‘chi’, the first letter of his name. Roman Emperor Constantine even adopted the Chi-Rho symbol for Christ on his military standard:
The Greeks were trendy. Where they led, the rest of the Roman world followed.
So with ‘Xmas’, are we being lazy? Or are we being cultural and classy?
Alright, it’s mostly laziness – but they started it, and it certainly isn’t taking the ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christmas’. It’s just an abbreviation. Oh and if you don’t like abbreviations, bad news: ‘-mas’ is an abbreviation too. It’s Christ’s mass. It’s Christmas. It’s Xmas.
We’ve been using ‘Xmas’ in English since at least the 1700s. Back then, some Christines even spelled their names ‘Xene’. But whenever it started, I will agree: it’s shorthand, and it’s just because we’re rushing. It’s for shopping lists, not for writing in Christmas cards. In this texting, tweeting world, we’re using shorthand more than ever. I write the word ‘alas’ far more than ‘unfortunately’ (because who has time for ‘unfortunately’? I could write three ‘alas’s in that time). But does this justify anything? Alas I fear not.
My tuppenceworth (to be dug out of a Christmas pudding) is that we can use shorthand by all means – just know that it’s shorthand.
Our crib scenes are shorthand too – they represent the original. Sometimes a sprig of holly represents the whole season. The whole festival of Christmas points back to the man whose mass it was to begin with. Our Xmas may be stuffed full of turkey and mince pies, Mariah and Cliff (I love him really) or shepherds and wise men – all of them are abbreviations. In this respect, every festive custom is like a Nativity angel, a messenger, referring to the baby, and pointing back down the hill to Bethlehem.
Hence (which is shorter than ‘Therefore’), Xmas is short for Christmas. Christmas is short for Christ’s mass. Christ’s mass is an abbreviation too, gesturing to the rest of Christ’s life and ministry.
When I write ‘Xmas’ in a text or tweet, I know it represents something bigger. I know it should be ‘Christmas’, and I know I should be expanding further, to whoever I’m talking to, about what that means too.
(Have a vMX+HNY... pk)
Paul Kerensa is the author of Hark! The Biography of Christmas (Lion Hudson)
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