For all of the gift-giving, decorations, holiday music, delicious food, and festive traditions, there is no escaping the fact that the central element of Christmas is the recognition of the birth of Jesus. Efforts to further commercialize and secularize the day increase each year, but for Christians, it is one of the two highest, holiest days on the calendar.
Because of the centrality of the birth of Jesus to Christmas, many cringe or outright rebel at the use of “Xmas” as a substitute for “Christmas.” Those who object point to the practice as just one more blatant attempt to take Christ out of Christmas. Are those arguments valid?
As far back as the 2nd century, Christians were using symbols to represent Jesus. Among these symbols, known as Christograms, the earliest and most recognizable is the ichthys symbol. ἸΧΘΥΣ (ichthys) is an acrostic for “Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ,” which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” ἸΧΘΥΣ is also the Greek word for “fish,” symbolic of the many references to fish in the Gospels.
By the fourth century, another variation of “ichthys” began to appear. It consisted of a wheel, in which the letters ἸΧΘΥΣ are superimposed, creating an eight-spoked wheel.
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337 AD) created another enduring Christogram. He combined the first two letters of ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christ) to form the Chi-Rho symbol. Constantine used the Chi-Rho symbol as part of a military standard.
It appears that the practice of using the letter Chi (X) to represent Christ continued from those early days and entered into regular use in writing. “Christianity” was spelled “Xianity” as far back as 1100. Proper names containing the name “Christ” besides those mentioned above are sometimes abbreviated similarly, either as “X” or “Xt,” such as with “Xtopher” or “Xopher” for “Christopher,” or “Xtina” or “Xina” for the name “Christina.”
This practice extended to the way in which “Christmas” was written. Up until at least 1551, the holiday was called “X’temmas.” Eventually, that was shortened to the now-familiar “Xmas.”
“Xmas,” therefore, is just as Christian as “Christmas.”
Of course, history is only helpful when people remember it. In a world that barely understands Christianity, it can hardly be expected that most people would recognize the Christology behind “Xmas.” For most people, the use of “Xmas” is either an abbreviation for the holiday’s name, or they give it little thought at all.
For this reason, the use of “Xmas” as a substitute for the holiday’s name is increasingly in disfavor among Christians. Evangelist Franklin Graham said, “For us as Christians, this is one of the most holy of the holidays, the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. And for people to take Christ out of Christmas…. [is], I think, a war against the name of Jesus Christ.”