Let’s Keep the Χ in Χmas

By | December 1, 2012

It’s getting to be that time of year again when people that can’t tell a Χ (chi) from an X (ex) start trying to take the X out of Xmas.

Xmas is usually considered an abbreviation of Christmas, but it was written Xmas long before it was written Christmas. It’s a trick that’s played on the uninformed: the Greek letter Χ (chi) looks a lot like the English letter X (ex). Χmas is spelled with a Χ (chi) not an X (ex).

The Modern English word Christmas was originally a compound word meaning “Christ’s Mass”. It is a derivation of the Middle English Cristemasse, which in turn is a derivation of the Old English Crīstesmæsse. Crīstesmæsse first appeared in written texts in 1038.

Crīstes, the possessive form of Crīst, came to English from the Ancient Greek Khrīstós (Χριστός), a title meaning “anointed”—Christ is a job title, not a name. Khrīstós (Χριστός), transcribed in Latin as Christus, is a translation of the Hebrew Māšîaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ), meaning “Messiah”. In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the title Christ was given to Jesus of Nazareth.

Mæsse is from the Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. Eucharist, which came to English from the Greek noun εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), meaning “thanksgiving”, is the symbolic eating of the body of Jesus and the drinking of his blood. However, the word Eucharist is not used in the New Testament as a name for the rite.

Christenmas has also been used for Christmas, but it’s now considered obsolete. Christenmas is a derivation of the Middle English Cristenmasse, literally “Christian mass”. Another form of “Christian mass” was the Middle English Χρ̄es masse. Χρ̄ (chi rho) was an abbreviation for Χριστός. Χρ̄es masse was shortened to Χmas.

XMAS in the flag semaphore system.

XMAS in the flag semaphore system.

Throughout history, the holiday, season, or feast has been known by many names other than “Christmas”. Anglo-Saxon peoples referred to the feast as midwinter, or more rarely, as Nātiuiteð, from the Latin word nātīvitās. The Modern English word “Nativity”, meaning “birth”, also comes from nātīvitās. The December and January time of year was referred to as Gēola (Yule) in Old English. The Old Norse variation of Gēola was Jól, the name of a Scandinavian pagan holiday that was merged with Christmas around 1000. The Modern English word Noel (or Nowell) entered the English language in the 1300s from the Old French word noël or naël, which was derived from the Latin word nātālis (diēs), meaning “(day) of birth”.

Now you know. So let’s keep the Χ in Χmas.

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