As we edge closer to Dec. 25, I ask this simple question: Do we need a rule about whether you should use Christmas or Xmas for the holiday?
For some people, the question over writing Christmas or Xmas is deeply personal. Some religious people can quickly become offended if they see Xmas. Their reasoning in getting upset is based on their assumption that using that X in place of the name of Jesus Christ is an intentional slight.
You can’t deny the fact that the X takes the place of the name Christ. That much is clear. That alone feeds the fear and paranoia of some religious people who complain about a perceived “war on Christmas.” It fuels anger that it’s one more example of “taking Christ out of Christmas.”
But you need to know the story of that ‘X’
If you look at the X as the second-to-last letter of the English alphabet, and you know that X has some less-than-desirable meanings, particularly when used to refer to adult products, it might be easy to assume there is an attempt at sacrilege.
But if you look at the X in Xmas not as our 24th letter but the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, things change a bit.
In Greek, that X represents the letter chi. Chi just so happens to be the first letter in the name Christós, which translates to Christ. Most scholars agree the abbreviation of X for Christ dates back to the year 1021.
The Online Etymology Dictionary, which traces the origins of words, dates Xmas to 1551. But it also notes that “the earlier way to abbreviate the word in English was Xp- or Xr-. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle uses the form Xres maesse for Christmas around the year 1100.
Historically, terms like Xtian or Xpian have been used as abbreviations for the term Christian. The OED further cites usage of “Xtianity” for “Christianity” from 1634, Wikipedia states.
In today’s world, I can see people getting upset if Christmas was abbreviated as “Cmas.” But I see that because it is not a historically-established abbreviation for Christ. But Xmas has been.
It’s primarily in the last century when Christians decided to wage culture wars and claim to take offense to any little thing as an excuse to further their case that Xmas has become an angry talking point.
But the overly religious don’t want to see it that way
Those who believe there’s a real “war on Christmas” won’t accept the idea that X is a long-used abbreviation for the name of Christ. They just won’t. They can’t get past the fact that they’re not seeing the name Christ.
So anytime you use Xmas, you will invariably face backlash from those folks. For that reason, it’s better to avoid Xmas and spell out Christmas.
But don’t take my word for it. From time to time, I remind you that if you have a specific style guide for your writing, you should follow that style guide’s ruling on such matters.
On this blog, I primarily focus on the style guide known as the Associated Press Stylebook. Its editors say you should not use Xmas.
It goes one step further: “Never abbreviate Christmas to Xmas or any other form.”
The New York Times’ own style guide also advises against using the abbreviation. The Chicago Manual of Style, from what I can tell on its online search, doesn’t really address the abbreviation.
If you’re looking for my verdict on the choice between Christmas or Xmas, you should probably avoid the abbreviation. You’ll get backlash no matter how respectfully you use the abbreviation. (If you insist on using the abbreviation, I hope you’ll provide the historical context for its use as an explanation.)
On the other hand, those of us who are Christians should be a bit more open-minded when we encounter the abbreviation. It’s a historical way of referring to the holiday and we shouldn’t assume the writer’s intention was to offend.
That, unfortunately, seems to be a more difficult goal to accomplish these days.
In any case, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! If you celebrate the Festival of Lights, I wish you and yours a Happy Hanukkah!