A few years back I got into an argument with my late Aunt Lorraine over the common abbreviation for Christmas, “X-Mas.” Well, argument is probably too strong a word. More like a conversation about a misunderstanding on her part.
We’ve all heard people talk about keeping Christ in Christmas. It’s shorthand, of course, for one aspect of the so-called culture wars, in which we see the increasing secularism of our culture in conflict with traditional public expressions of religious faith. For instance, think of how a Nativity scene on display in front of a civic building is contentious in many places. Legal challenges may ensue.
But back to my Aunt, she argued that abbreviating Christmas with “X-Mas,” and replacing the name “Christ” with “X,” was taking Christ out of Christmas. On the surface, without really asking why “X” can be used to replace the name “Christ,” I can understand the sentiment. After all, she’s literally correct. The word Christ has been taken out (at least apparently) and replaced with something else.
What I couldn’t get her to understand is that the letter “X” used in Christmas is not the English “x” but the Greek letter “chi” or “x.” And as it happens, “chi” is the first letter of the word “Christ” in Greek (pronouonced like “pie” except with a “k” instead of a “p” at the start). In other words, the “X” in X-Mas is an abbreviation for the word “Christ.” So using “X-Mas” is keeping Christ in Christmas.
Of course, I suppose it raises the larger issue of what it means to keep Christ in Christmas. Often those who protest that Christ has been taken out of Christmas are talking not only about expressions of faith in the public sphere but public endorsements of such expressions. In other words, there are Christians who think our public institutions have the responsibility of endorsing specifically Christian expressions of faith. Another example of this would be prayer in public schools.
Now, I happen to disagree. I don’t think it’s up to my government–local, provincial, or federal–to support and endorse my particular religious beliefs. Those who think it is are no doubt giving voice to the frustration about the ever-widening gap between our public institutions and their personal spiritual convictions. There is something sad about the cultural losses we see with respect to values, integrity, and morality. But of course there can, for instance, still be praying in public schools. Even if it isn’t a part of a school’s opening exercises, there’s nothing preventing an individual student, teacher, or staff member from praying while on the premises. They may have to be respectful of their context while doing so, but unless it’s expressly prohibited our religious freedom remains intact.
Just so with Christmas, obviously. It’s up to believers and Christian communities to keep Christ in Christmas. How we do so is not a grammatical or political issue; it’s a matter of how we live out our faith authentically in a world that increasingly doesn’t share it. Keeping Christ in Christmas, so to speak, means keeping Christ himself (and not only his name) at the center of our lives. It means living incarnationally, and putting his love, truth, and grace on display for all to see through our actions and attitudes. So if you’ve ever been tempted to complain that our society has taken Christ out of Christmas, remember that whatever is going on in the culture around us needn’t ever take Christ out of you.