It’s almost Christmas, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Every December of the past few decades has ignited a pop culture contest to reinvent the “meaning of Christmas”. Every modern Christmas movie has repeated the same old reimaginations of Christmas’ meaning: love, kindness, generosity, family, etc. At any time before the 20th century, did the culture ever promote an alternative meaning for Christmas besides the coming of Christ to the world? Even today with the overwhelming secularization of Christmas, I don’t think anyone really believes Christmas is merely a time for showing [insert your virtue of choice].
The very name of Christmas serves as a reminder of its religious nature. The word Christmas is a concatenation of the Old English Cristes mæsse, or Christ Mass, referring to the Mass offered in celebration of Christ’s birth. The name became one word as early as the 14th century.
X-Mas: Sacrilegious, Practical, or Ok?
One day in my youth as Christmas was approaching, one of my brothers chalked “Merry Xmas” on a wall outside our house. Our family was horrified, to say the least, that he had taken “Christ” out of “Christmas”. At worst, it was a sacrilegious act, I thought. At best, it’s merely a practical shorthand.
Only many years later did I learn the significance of the X, when understood as the Greek letter “chi”. For much of Christianity’s history, chi has been used to represent Christ, whose name is Greek reads ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (pronounced “khristós,” meaning “the anointed one”). When used to represent Christ, X is called the Christogram, and it has been used extensively throughout Christianity’s history, especially early on.
For example, a symbol called the labarum, composed the Greek letters chi and rho, was famously used by the first Christian-friendly Roman emperor, Constantine, when he saw the symbol in a vision. Earlier symbols like the staurogram and the IX monogram also represented Christ. As you’ll notice the chi (X) is common to all three of these Christ symbols. Today the chi-rho symbol can be found on many early Christian artifacts (rings, pendants, tombs) and churches, such as on the roof of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
So, the next time you see someone using Xmas, keep in mind they’ve kept Christ in Christmas after all by using the Christogram.
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