The Real Meaning of ‘Xmas’

Why do some people write “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”?
By Linda Browne

It’s that holly jolly time of year once again! The festive tunes are ringing like bells, children eagerly wait (at least, some of them) to get their picture taken with Santa, and folks are spreading that holiday cheer by sending cards wishing each other a “Merry Xmas and a happy new year.”
Hold up. “Xmas? Doesn’t that take away the reason for the season?” you may be thinking.
You’ve likely encountered the phrase “Keep Christ in Christmas” at some point during the holidays. The idea that writing “Xmas” instead of “Christmas” is a blatant attempt to cut out the holiday’s religious roots is one that’s been floating around for a while. The news website “Vox,” for instance, mentions an interview with evangelist Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) that originally aired on the CNN’s “American Morning” in 2005, in which he decried this practice and proclaimed it to be “a war against the name of Jesus Christ.”
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, compiler Robert Hendrickson notes that “Xmas is neither an abbreviation nor a ‘vulgar commercial invention’ of recent vintage.” In fact, he continues, “X has been used to symbolize the syllable ‘Christ’ in English since at least 1100, when it was recorded in Xianity, for ‘Christianity.’ The Old English word for Christian recorded in the 12th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins with an X, and the word Xmas itself was used as early as 1551. The Greek word that gives us the English word Christ begins with the letter chi, or X, leading some writers to believe that the X in Xmas symbolized the cross.”
In Merriam-Webster’s popular “Ask the Editor” video series, lexicographer Kory Stamper gives a practical explanation as to why it would’ve made sense to use this shortened form of “Christmas.” (For more with Kory Stamper, check out her explanation of the terms “Down to the wire” and “Down the pipe” in the August 2023 issue of Downhome.) If the letter “X” for “Christ” has been used for almost 1,000 years, she asks, why bother shortening it in the first place? Then she explains, “This use of ‘X’ predates the printing press. A thousand years ago, books were copied out by hand, sometimes on hard to obtain materials, and were extremely expensive. You can gain space, and save some ink and time, using ‘X’ in place of the word Christ.”
So if you get a frosty reception after writing “Xmas” on your Christmas cards this year, remember Stamper’s words: “Lexically speaking, Christ is, and always has been, in ‘Xmas.’”

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