Christmas or Xmas?
Some years ago when I was working on my children’s school council, one of the communications volunteers received a complaint from some parents after a brief communication went out asking for volunteers for a “Xmas” event. The complaint? That the use of Xmas was “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” In fact, in recent years, there seems to have been some backlash in North America over the use of Xmas as a shortened version for Christmas, claiming that the use of the abbreviation is an attempt to secularize Christmas.
Tradition and History
On the contrary, the use of X for Christ has a long and rich Christian tradition. The Greek letter X (chi) has been used as an abbreviation for Christ for over a thousand years, derived from the the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek (Χριστός), chi (X) and rho (ρ or R). The Chi-Rho symbol is evident in the earliest Christian inscriptions, such as those on tombs in the Catacombs, and was even taken up by the Roman emperor Constantine (AD 306–337) for his standard. This symbol is still used in churches today.
The use of X alone as an abbreviation for the Latin form Christus is evident in medieval manuscripts, produced at a time when materials were expensive and abbreviations necessary to ease scribes’ work of writing out lengthy texts completely by hand. Even with the arrival of the printing press, the abbreviation was maintained, for typesetting was still tedious and expensive. The abbreviation X continued on even to modern printing, with the Catholic Church itself using this abbreviation to save cost and space in its publications.
Within an English context, we know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge used the abbreviation Xmas in an 1801 letter, although it seems that an earlier attestation of its form appears in a letter written by King Edward VI in 1551 (Xtemmas, with a titulus over the X).
Should You Use Xmas?
As with any abbreviation, the context of your writing matters. If you are preparing a formal text, such as a scholarly work for publication or perhaps a policy document, then you may want to avoid such abbreviation in your main text and, in this case, use Christmas. However, using the abbreviation Xmas is acceptable, in my opinion, for any informal writing (personal communications, emails, memos, social media), where you are pressed for space or time.
So, as you are making your lists and sending your holiday greetings this time of year, if you choose to go ahead and use this common abbreviation in your informal writing, know that you are in good company. Because, if X for Christus was good enough for medieval and incunabula Bibles, and modern Church materials, it should be okay for your emails. Christ is very much in Xmas, a term that does not signify disrespect or omission but rather draws on a long-standing tradition of religious and textual use. If you celebrate this Christian holiday, I wish you a Merry X/Christmas—whichever you prefer!
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.