Merry Xmas! An Illustrated History

It’s Christmas!! I’m sitting here in my Fairisle knit jumper with reindeer and snowflakes on, I’m listening to Idina Menzel forcefully emote glorious Christmas music at me, and I still haven’t bought all my presents or finished putting the decorations up. The festive season is definitely upon us.

All of that is slightly beside the point for the purposes of this blog post, but damnit, I just really love Xmas.

Oh wait, sorry – not Xmas, Christmas.

This is a common complaint at this time of year and gets people really riled up. A quick poll of my small corner of Twitter (disclaimer: I did this last year and was so slow to write the post that I saved it for this year) shows that pretty much everyone prefers to write Christmas over Xmas. For some, it’s a matter of principle, that they don’t like shortening or abbreviating words, or because Christmas is more proper and more traditional. For others, it can be seen as ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas’, which is obviously something bad if you’re religious, but might be preferable for secular writers.

Of course, I’m not here to tell you whether you should be offended by something or not, but I think opinions about this are interesting considering the history of Xmas.

Xmas is no less full of Christ than Christmas in any way but spelling. Any quick Google will tell you this, but I’m going to put it here. With pictures. Lots of pictures. But the point stands; writing Xmas is not taking the Christ out of Christmas. And it’s certainly not any less traditional.

The ‘X’ in Xmas comes from the Greek spelling of Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The first character, the X, is called Chi (pronounced ‘kai’, to rhyme with ‘high’). It had been used by pagan Greek scribes to mark notable or good things in the margins of texts, but in the 4th century it merged with the Rho to become a symbol.


The Chi-Rho

The Emperor Constantine adopted it, went into battle under it and won, and it took off. All of a sudden this symbol had power across the Christian world. Indeed, the Christian cross as we know it didn’t start to appear in art produced in the British Isles until the sixth century. The Chi-Rho was the go-to symbol, and is still used today.

Charles Thomas, in his Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, has two excellent illustrations showing its development and use in different contexts:

 Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.39.16 Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.39.34
[Google Books link, pp. 88-89]

And here, for your enjoyment, are some other cool things from early Christian history with XP on them:

redware-shard-ar20711Roman North Africa, 4th – 5th Century AD []

The Hinton St Mary mosaic from Roman Britain in the 4th century, AD.
[more info from the British Museum]

Most people were not literate in their own language, let alone in Latin or Greek and it’s very unlikely they recognised letters in the symbol. To most of the western Christian world, this symbol was Christ. The Chi-Rho was already in use in Roman Britain, and it comes into use again by the Anglo-Saxons from the fifth century. As I’ve written about elsewhere, scribes love abbreviating, and they really love symbolism, and XP combines those two in one heady mixture. XP is what we call a nomen sacrum, a sacred name, in which the symbol itself has power. In such cases, the abbreviation is not used to save space or effort, but because that form has more power than the full words. It was ‘not really devised to lighten the labours of the scribe, but rather to shroud in reverent obscurity the holiest words of the Christian religion’.*

It appears in the fanciest of manuscripts, taking up entire pages:

The Gospel of St Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the fanciest of manuscripts.

The Book of Kells. The fanciest of manuscripts.

And in quiet little brown manuscripts, used as part of the normal text:

 xpADD37517 135V a
British Library, MS Additional 37517  f. 135v, a quiet little brown manuscript.

Harley 2892   f. 20 a
British Library, MS Harley 2892 f. 20

Royal 1 D IX   f. 43v a
British Library, MS Royal 1 D IX f. 43v 

Harley 391   f. 33
British Library, MS Harley 391 f. 33

And oh wow in so many more places. See if you can spot it on each of these pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5.

Of course, as we know, Christ is not just a stand-alone word, it also appears within other words (Christmas being the relevant example here). In 1485, for example, it’s used in christened:

 1485   Rolls of Parliament. Any Kyng or Prynce in England Xp̄enned.

And in 1573, in Christopher:

1573   J. Baret Aluearie,   The long mistaking of this woorde Xp̃s, standing for Chrs by abbreuation which for lacke of knowledge in the greeke they tooke for x, p, and s, and so like~wise Xp̃ofer.

And eventually, just the X is used as a short-hand for the whole thing, as more obscurity slips in. The OED cites the first use of X in Christmas in 1551 by which time I imagine it’s long lost its symbolic power, particularly as, as the previous example shows, even in the sixteenth century, people were confusing the Greek letters Chi and Rho for the Latin letters Ex and Pee:

 Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 22.13.21
The earliest instance of X in Christmas,
in Edmund Lodge’s Illustrations of British History.

And then we see it cropping up in early 1900s greetings cards entirely detatched from any symbolic, early Christian meaning:

From the Ephemera Society

And on Victorian Xmas cards –  none of which I’m able to post here for reasonable copyright reasons but which you should look at because they’re lovely –  in the 1860s and 1870s.

So, not only is X- old as balls, in the medieval period it was even more powerful than Christ-. Feel free to use it for space-saving, festive, jolly, and religious reasons. And Merry Xmas!

[Note: What does surprise me – and if anyone can answer this, I’d be interested – is how low Xmas is compared to Christmas on Google NGrams. Possibly because it only contains published books, where Xmas might be rarer?]

* Traube, ‘Nomina Sacra’ (Munich, 1907) in Lindsay, Notae Latinae, p. 1.

65 responses to “Merry Xmas! An Illustrated History

  1. Ha! Memories! One of the minor disconnects from my childhood is that my Lutheran pastor father didn’t care for “Xmas” for exactly the reason stated — it supposedly removed “Christ” from “Christmas” — but even in high school I knew about “X” standing for Christ. The disconnect was that my dad didn’t. (But then he also surprised me in never having heard of the word “ubiquitous” either.)

  2. Great information, thank you. It certainly Xplains a lot and I look forward to sharing the historical background with some very religious types who need to know the truth about the X. Merry Christmas🎄

  3. Thanks for the history and the beautiful art!

  4. Reblogged this on Emanuele Franzini's blog and commented:
    Merry christmas!!

  5. Reblogged this on mrrobin86's Blog and commented:

  6. I suppose the interesting question about its modern use is when people started pronouncing it /ɛksməs/, but that’s awfully hard to figure out from the written record.

  7. Reblogged this on walitosh's Blog and commented:

  8. Reblogged this on ALL DIE SCHÖNEN WORTE and commented:
    Merry Christmas from Hamburg!

  9. Reblogged this on Raymond Mijumbi and commented:
    Always a good read and a great source of knowledge. Learn something every time!

  10. Reblogged this on generalolomu's Blog and commented:
    Outstanding piece of information. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Reblogged this on Read and Write | Authors and Book Fairs Promotion and commented:
    Very informational post :) really liked it

  12. Fascinating information. And great to always have an extra piece in that never ending puzzle. Will try and reblog on a nature blog….

  13. Reblogged this on NavasolaNature and commented:
    Not quite my usual focus but having studied linguistics and the origins of words this is an interesting snippet for Christmas time. When words were truly sacred. Wishing everyone peace and joy over this Christmas time and for 2015.

  14. Symbols like the ChiRho, the cross and the fish, etc…are important to the evangelizing of the gospel, in that they can be easily remembered and recognized among peoples of varying languages. The beauty of the Word is that we can ever learn more about God.

  15. Very interesting . But I still can’t bring myself to write it…feels sacrilegious I suppose.

  16. thanks bro, really great info

  17. Reblogged this on dheekulzy and commented:
    How it all began and what it means. X being taking for Christ in Christmas is wrong.

  18. Very informative, with beautiful art! Wonderful!

  19. recoveringbetamale

    Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity anyway. There is no mention of Santa, flying reindeers, or Christmas trees in the Bible.

  20. This is incredible! Beautiful art and an informative article–the best kind there is!

  21. I love this post! It’s very informative. I did not know about the Chi-Rho symbol until now. Glad to know the story behind “Xmas.” :)

  22. Reblogged this on Oak Tree and Stars and commented:
    I really had no idea that Xmas was just as religious as writing Christmas. This article has opened my eyes. Thank you. And what I lovely history lesson too.

  23. HAHAH, “Not only is X- old as balls”. Thanks for the history lesson with humor.

  24. Thanks for the historical explanation. Lovely illustrations as well.

  25. Stephen Griffin

    cool and factual – great pictures

  26. Reblogged this on Symbologist's Journal and commented:
    Symbols of words

  27. This is fantastic information :)

  28. Reblogged this on Gwenstale and commented:
    I like this post!

  29. Reblogged this on sachinsatpute's Blog and commented:
    Very beautifully illustrated… thoughtful thinking.

  30. Well done! I published a similar themed article in a local publication where I pointed out that many of the people who get offended by “Xmass” also have that plasti-chrome Xtian fish on the back of their car. I asked them what they thought the X in that fish stood for. (…and yes, I think we should refer to them as Xtians just to hone the point.

  31. cool illustrations…a bit of an eye opener too…I will be borrowing this on occasion to show my point if that’s ok. I will of course give the credit where due for all the “leg work” Thank you by the way. and Merry Xmas??

  32. Christmas can be celebrated in many ways. The separation from the religious to the celebrative aspect of it depends on the individual. For the children it is the marvel of lights, activity and presents. Religiously it is celebrated differently in every country indifferent ways. So! who is to say any of them are wrong.

  33. As Christmas has really nothing to do with the birth of Christ, xmas is much appropriate

  34. I love this article! Very interesting.

  35. Reblogged this on The Cheery Owl and commented:
    This is a good piece of read if anyone wants to know how Xmas came about.

  36. This is a very interesting piece of reading. I like how you’ve done your research on it. This question has always been on my mind. Thanks for this.

  37. PS. I’ve reblogged this on The Cheery Owl

  38. Thank you. This has been riling me for years. We learned this in 6th grade. Granted I went to a Catholic school (that didn’t teach latin) so it should come as no surprise that we learned it. But decades later so many of my friends of an age are outraged at the taking Christ out of Christmas. And to top it off, being a letters geek, I immediately used X, P as a letter form itself for Christmas because I am a calligraphy and font geek. Guess who the first person to object to the usage was….
    The teacher who taught the religion class. Oy!

  39. what an interesting article. I study the Bible and didn’t know that. Thanks for enlightening me.

  40. CHI – RHO same sa Hero

  41. A terrific article – informs and interesting. I used to be one of those who believed Xmas was tacky and lacking grace. A demarcation against Christ. I’d only recently learned this myself. Thank you.

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