The True Meaning of Xmas

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

As another holiday season passes into memory, I once again think back about how many times I heard one person or another say in the past month that the term "Xmas" is some sort of plot to remove religion from the Christmas holiday season. By their reasoning, the name of Christ has conveniently been "x-ed" out of Christmas.

While it is true that in the 20th century, we use the term "x-ed out" to mean "removed", the "X" in Xmas is not this sort of X, nor was the abbreviation invented by mercenary merchants of our century out to make a buck, nor does substituting the "X" for Christ expunge Jesus from Christmas.

From as far back as the rise in production of Latin parchment manuscripts in Late Antiquity (n the 4th century AD), copyists have found it convenient to abbreviate commonly used words and terms by "contraction"--that is, by dropping most of the letters out of a word and drawing a line above those which remain to indicate the abbreviation. In a rapidly Christianizing age, copyists of sacred text noted that certain names kept coming up: Iesus Christus, Deus (God), Dominus (Lord), Spirtus Sancti (Holy Spirit), and so forth. The abbreviations devised for these names are termed Nomina Sacra. All of the names listed a moment ago were in Latin, with the exception of Christ's--the Gospels were originally in Greek, and so the abbreviation for Iesus Christus uses Greek letters instead, looking like this:

___ ___

___ ___

In the first abbreviation, the "I" is the Greek letter iota, the "H" is eta (or "e" in Latin), and the "C" is sigma (or "s" in Latin), thus yielding "IES" in Latin letters (some later translators into vernacular languages did not realize the "H" was really an eta, and thus mistakenly believed the proper spelling of Iesus or Jesus was Jhesus or Ihesus!) In the second part, the "X" is chi (or Ch in Latin letters), the "P" is rho (or R in Latin), and the "C" sigma, as above. The second pair of abbreviations were developed in the later Middle Ages as variants of the originals, and, in fact, may often be spotted on banners in modern churches, especially hanging from the pulpit or lectern--especially the abbreviation for Jesus. You can also spot this particular abbreviation hanging on the little tag above Christ on crucifixes. You may also spot the Chi-Rho, which was placed by the emperor Constantine on his war standards after his conversion and has since been another common Christian motif; it looks like a letter "P" with the letter "X" superimposed over it.

Thus was born the use of the Greek chi (which looks like a Latin X) as shorthand for Christ. Medieval copyists found it rather convenient in other compound words using Christ, such as Xana for "Christiana" and, inevitably, Xmas for Christmas, an abbreviation which appears by 1100. The only thing which has altered over the years is the dropping of the dash over the "X" which signaled "abbreviation" to the medieval reader, and which differentiated this "X" from the Roman numeral X.

Unfortunately, few modern folk know of the extensive use of abbreviations in medieval texts, and so are understandably confused by them when they encounter them today (I remember staring at the banners in churches before I took palaeography, trying to figure out what "IHS" stood for; I was once told (incorrectly) that it stood for "In Hoc Signo"). They also err in pronouncing Xmas as "Ex-mas"; a medieval liturgist encountering this abbreviation would have read it aloud as "Christmas".

So, the next time you see Xmas on the sign at the local tree lot, I hope you will smile, and remember that this abbreviation is a living relic of the Middle Ages.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.