Monday, December 16, 2013

Before You Freak Out Over "Xmas," Please Read

Have you ever wondered what the deal is with using “Xmas” as a substitute for “Christmas?”  Is it lazy?  Disrespectful?  Politically-correct? Offensive?  Part of some secular “War on Christmas”?  (By the way, if you’ve been by the mall lately, it would appear that if there is, indeed, a war on Christmas, Santa has called in plenty of reinforcements.)

A friend from college posted on his Facebook page earlier today, asking about the use of “Xmas” rather than “Christmas.”  He wasn’t attacking the practice, only curious about it.

If you do a little homework, you might not be so offended by the practice.  You might even come to see it as a bit more reverent and respectful of God and God’s begotten Son, Jesus.

Huh?  How’s that?

The “X” in “Xmas” is not actually our English letter “X.”  It is the Greek “Chi” (pronounced “kai,” like a K with a long “I”).  It’s the first letter in the Greek word Χριστός (pronounced “kristos”), which comes into English as "Christ".

Χ (“Chi”), as the first letter of the word, was often used by the early Greek-speaking Christians as a sort of shorthand for the complete word of Christ, or sometimes Χρ (“Chi” “Rho”) as the first two letters of the word.  Simply put, “X” meant “Christ,” so “Xmas” is not taking the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” it’s just representing it in a different way than we’re used to seeing it.

So, were early Greek-speaking Christians lazy?  Unable to spell the whole word?

The use of “X” as an abbreviation is partly convenience.  Certainly, in my seminary notes, as I was furiously trying to keep up with lectures, you’ll find “X” all through them to represent Jesus. (You’ll also find Θ, Greek letter “Theta” to represent “God”, because it’s the first letter of the word Θεóς [Theos, think “theology”], the Greek word for God.  In my notes you’ll also find “HS” to represent “Holy Spirit,” but that one is pretty self-explanatory.)

So yes, the use of “X” as an abbreviation for “Christ” is partly convenience.  It’s also partly respect and reverence.

How so?  There is an ancient Hebrew tradition that is still carried on in some places of neither pronouncing nor completely spelling out the sacred name of God.  It was a way of showing respect and reverence, and remembering that it is God who names us, not we who name God.

Practicing Jews were forbidden from speaking the name of God aloud.  They would commonly write the Tetragrammaton (“four letters”) יהוה (transliterated YHWH).  While YHWH is the most common transliteration of the Tetragrammaton in English academic studies, the alternatives YHVH, JHVH and JHWH are also used.

You’ll see this a lot in the Old Testament.  You know where you’re reading and it says “The Lord did such and such,” with ‘Lord’ in all small caps?  Usually when you see that, it means the Hebrew author used an abbreviation for the unspeakable name of God, and the English translator represented it with Lord. 

That’s a very long and technical way of saying that there’s a tradition, one that predates Christianity and certainly one that predates Christmas, of using abbreviations when it comes to speaking and writing about God – a tradition rooted in respect and reverence.

So, next time you see “Xmas” written out instead of “Christmas,” it’s probably not part of some conspiracy to take the Christ out of Christmas.  It may, in fact, be someone with an appreciation and knowledge of tradition who, wisely, doesn’t want to throw God’s name around too casually.

I'd like to wish you a Merry Xmas, but I can't, because it's not Christmas yet.  It's Advent!  But, I suppose that's another post for another day.

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