Keep the X in X-Mas

The abbreviation offends 6 in 10 evangelicals, but its history is deeply Christian
Griffin Paul Jackson
Keep the X in X-Mas
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs

Though the demand for “more Christ in Christmas” seems to be losing momentum, most evangelicals still believe the holiday—and its seasonal greetings—should more explicitly reference the Savior.

Overall, the number of Americans who say Christmas should be more about Jesus has dropped from 79 percent in 2014 to 65 percent in 2018, according to LifeWay Research.

“Saying Christmas should be more about Jesus is a little like saying Thanksgiving should be more about giving thanks. It’s in the name of the holiday,” said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research’s executive director. “Yet, it appears there is less cultural expectation for celebrations of the Christmas holiday to include the religious aspect.”

American nones and those of other faiths account for the bulk of the shift. In LifeWay’s 2014 report, 63 percent of members of non-Christian faiths and nearly half of the country’s nones (46%) said Christmas should be more about Jesus. Four years later, those percentages dropped to 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Even Christians are slightly less likely to want to see a greater emphasis on Jesus, with 8 in 10 agreeing this year compared to 9 in 10 in 2014. But nearly all evangelicals by belief, 97 percent, still insist on more Jesus.

A majority of evangelicals (65%) say they take offense when someone says, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” though fewer than half of Christians (42%) and a third of Americans (32%) agree.

Over the years, LifeWay found the abbreviation “X-mas” to be just as controversial as “Happy holidays” or more, with 42 percent of Christians and 33 percent of Americans saying it was offensive in this year’s survey. Nearly 6 in 10 of those with evangelical beliefs (59%) find the use of “X-mas” instead of Christmas offensive.

The great irony in the distaste for the term “X-mas” is that it is thoroughly Christian, rather than an effort to remove the word Christ from the holiday.

The “X” in X-mas is not really an “X” at all. It’s chi, the Greek letter at the start of the word Christ, or Christos (Χριστός). Since the earliest era of political Christendom, “X” has been used as a shorthand for Christ, as LifeWay’s own Facts & Trends pointed out.

Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity and whose Edict of Milan sought to free Christians from persecution, instructed his soldiers to inscribe the letter on their shields before the landmark Battle of Milvian Bridge. The chi “X” was paired with “P,” representing the Greek letter rho, the first two letters of and a signifier for the name Christ. Legend has it, the chi rho symbol came to Constantine in a vision.

Using “X” as an abbreviation for Christ is also thought to have appeared in many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.

Even incorporating “X” into an English-language abbreviation for Christmas dates back a millennium. In the year 1021, an Anglo-Saxon scribe condensed Christmas to “XPmas,” and eventually the “P” was dropped to shorten the term even further,First Things noted.

According to the Christian Research Institute, the church was substituting “Christ” with “X” in the middle of the fifteenth century to save space and money when using newly invented printing presses, and Webster’s dictionary recognizes “X-mas” as a common term by the sixteenth century.

Matthew Schmitz, senior editor of First Things, states, “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.”

In the eighteenth century, one of England’s most famous poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was using “X-mas” in his writing.

More recently, in a 1954 essay called “Xmas and Christmas,” C. S. Lewis describes a mythical people who celebrate a winter festival called, critically, “Exmas” and find themselves hopelessly entangled, then exhausted, by the holiday rush. He uses the story to decry Christmas’ commercial abuses. Fellow English writer G.K. Chesterton, too, wrote a short poem called “Xmas Day.”

“What Does the X in Xmas Mean?” was one of 300 questions theologian R. C. Sproul compiled in a 1996 book.

“The X in Christmas is used like the R in R. C. My given name at birth was Robert Charles, although before I was even taken home from the hospital my parents called me by my initials, R.C., and nobody seems to be too scandalized by that,” he said in his response, now posted on the Ligonier Ministries website.

Even two decades ago, the late teacher defended the term against Christian skepticism.

“People seem to express chagrin about seeing Christ’s name dropped and replaced by this symbol for an unknown quantity X. Every year you see the signs and the bumper stickers saying, ‘Put Christ back into Christmas’ as a response to this substitution of the letter X for the name of Christ,” he said.

“There’s a long and sacred history of the use of X to symbolize the name of Christ, and from its origin, it has meant no disrespect.”

June
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