Thoughts on “Xmas”

A few days ago, I ran across a blog that I was tempted to just copy here in its entirety. Then I came across another one today also dealing with the things some Christians do regarding Christmas – so I decided to instead quote some excerpts and add some commentary of my own.

(Although my posts tend to be as much op-ed pieces as anything (which I guess blogs are supposed to be anyway), this one is probably more-so than most.)
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Culture Wars is a frequently used catch-phrase used to describe the tension between Christians and an antagonistic society. Well, if everyday life is characterized by the culture war, then Christmas can certainly be characterized as The Battle of the Bulge (pun intended for the weight-conscious crowd at this time of year ).

As much as a time of celebrating the birth of our Savior, Christmas is also a time when many Christians find themselves drawn into the heat of this battle. The ACLU and the broader pro-secularization crowd finds this to be an opportune time to push their agenda – while rather gleefully looking for ways to “push our buttons” in the process. Unfortunately, the way Christians respond to their tactics / antics can often leave us looking ignorant and foolish, while we expend a whole lot of energy and emotion trying keep “Christ in Christmas.”

Eric Messelt writes about this on his “Happy Xmas” blog:

Well another Christmas season come and gone. And with it the echoes of controversy and silliness that otherwise informed people get wrapped up with.

First is the “Xmas” controversy. Some bad preaching fueled by ignorance and a “sky is falling” mood has contributed to this one. “Xmas” is an abbreviation for “Christmas.” This is because the English “X” most closely resembles the Greek letter ‘chi.’ Chi, for millennia, has been a God-honoring abbreviation for “Christ.” In the same way, Bible students can use “Xn” for “Christian,” “Xnty” for “Christianity,” or even “Xndm” for “Christendom.” As such, English believers have used their own letter, “X” for “Christ” for hundreds of years.

Only recently, with the increasing ignorance of all things older than one’s lifetime, have silly preachers claimed that “Xmas” is an attempt to ‘take the Christ from Christmas.” Leveraging on the use of the letter ‘x’ to signify the unknown in high-school math and the use of ‘x’ in popular culture to signify mystery, as well as a desire to find all kinds of reasons why the world is going to Hell in a Handbasket, have conspired to create the completely unwarranted objection to using Xmas for Christmas. “Xmas” as an abbreviation for “Christmas” dates from at least the 1500’s – far before any attempt by postmodernists, New Atheists, or even the concept of the secular state.

I have always loved Christmas. And when I was growing up – and for a long time into adulthood – I heard and repeated these same concerns about the use of Xmas. Even as an unbeliever I didn’t like it. I thought it was just another example of the world trying to “take Christ out of Christmas.” But as Eric rightly points out, X is simply the English version of the letter that begins the Greek word for Christ – Χριστος.

When I was a student at Word of Life, one of the first things I learned was to use some short-hand when trying to keep up when taking notes in theology class – and to follow the teacher’s example. So, instead of writing out God, we would use θ – the first letter in the Greek word for God – θεος. Of course, God isn’t very long to write out, but when using diagrams to illustrate certain things, θ is helpful. In practical terms, it’s not much different than using our initials in place of our names. So, despite a fair amount of criticism, in reality Xmas means exactly the same thing as Christmas – and it isn’t sacrilegious.

And as Eric also points out, the X should not necessarily be our biggest concern:

What is odd is that people object to the use of the English letter, ‘x’ for “Christ,” but don’t bat an eye at the rest of the word, “mas.” “Christ-mas” is derived from the phrase, “Christ’s Mass.” The word first hit the scene in about 1038. And for those people very much in the Protestant camp, they get their drawers in a knot about abbreviating “X” for Christ but are happy to encourage the concept of the Roman Catholic Mass. Go figure.

What causes me befuddlement is that otherwise well-educated Christians are perfectly willing to embrace willful ignorance because one day a bad preacher compellingly told them a historical falsehood.

To be genuinely consistent, we should probably opt to either change the name of the holiday to “Christ Day” – or perhaps quietly drop both issues altogether. Unfortunately, we aren’t always the best at being consistent when it comes to emotionally-charged issues.

Personally, I think it is probably best to just drop the issue. We can’t use a word’s etymology or what it meant decades or centuries ago to say “this is what it really means.” For example, good-bye evolved from contracting the phrase God be with ye – along with the thought of good day. However, we can’t say that an atheist proves he really believes in God when he says, “good-bye” because it means “God be with ye.” (although, unfortunately, I have heard similar kinds of things said in sermons).

For the same reason, we need not be concerned about using the -mas in Christmas either. Christmas no longer means Christ’s Mass. In present-day usage, Christmas simply (and only) means the day we celebrate as the birthday of Christ (which almost certainly is nowhere close to December 25 – but that issue is probably best reserved for another post).

Over at StuffChristiansLike, Jon posted a blog inspired by a billboard spotted in the Atlanta area:

I wasn’t going to write about this one. The Christmas season was going to come and go and I wasn’t even going to touch it. Like every fraternity at Samford University’s view of Freshman Jon Acuff, I was going to reject this.

Until I saw the billboard.

Sunday night, driving home from vacation with my family outside of Atlanta, GA, I saw a new billboard.

On a background of festive red, with big white letters I read a simple message:

I miss you saying “Merry Christmas.” – Jesus

And that’s when, much like the mafia, just when I thought I was out, they dragged me back into the conversation.

I don’t have a problem with that billboard, but there are three things it calls to mind:

1. We invented the phrase “Merry Christmas.”

I’ve only read the Bible from front to back one time. I read it a lot, but from a “read through it straight in 2 years point of view” I’ve only taken one spin. But when I did, I swear I couldn’t find the phrase, “Merry Christmas” anywhere. That billboard kind of makes it seem like Paul said that while he was making tents before he went on his wild missions. “Making tents on Christmas Eve. That is completely bogus. No one even said ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. All these heathen tent makers all say, ‘Happy Holidays.’ So whack.”

2. How do we know Jesus misses that?

Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. I honestly don’t know. Maybe Jesus would say things like “I miss hearing you say, ‘Let’s play some Frisbee golf’” or “I miss hearing you say that you pre-ordered the ‘Stuff Christians Like’ book.” I’m not certain, but I am certain that the times I’ve misquoted Jesus or put words in his mouth, in my mouth I’ve felt that feeling you get when you chew aluminum foil with metal fillings in your teeth. God isn’t technically striking me with lightning but He’s definitely firing up the lightning bolt 300 for imminent release.

3. We would be upset if someone else quoted Jesus for their cause.

If some other group made a billboard that quoted Jesus and that quote was not solidly based in the Bible, we would go spider monkey crazy. (You might rock out squirrel monkey style, but that’s really a personal preference thing.) If someone, even just for emphasis, quoted Jesus as supporting their cause and it wasn’t straight up Bible, we would be straight up upset.

I will see that billboard everyday during my commute, but I’m at peace with it. And there’s a pretty simple reason – It’s not belligerent. I always get a little weirded out when people aggressively make the distinction between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” I completely understand the frustration with a culture that is actively and deliberately removing Christ at every given opportunity, but when we angrily say, “It’s ‘Merry Christmas, not happy holidays!’” we might as well say, “It’s ‘Merry Christmas,’ not happy holidays you jerk!” And that makes people want to celebrate winter solstice instead of whatever those grumpy, fight you on a vernacular level Christians are down with.

Good points.

I would suggest, and probably most believers would agree, that commercialization has done far more to take Christ out Christmas than the usage of Xmas ever could. And to be honest, most of us contribute to this problem without giving it too much thought. While I imagine that we all lose just a bit more of our minds each year when Walmart starts playing White Christmas on or about September 15 – I suspect that we are also just a bit thankful for it because it does remind us to get started early on our Christmas shopping  – of course only so we don’t have to fight the Halloween / Christmas shopping crowds that start showing up on about October 1. (Santa carving a pumpkin has always been one of my favorite displays, anyway.)

So, how do we manage to miss our own inconsistencies?

On news channels (you can guess which one I watch), an annual storyline that’s always good for a few segments is about the removal of a nativity scene from yet another courthouse lawn. We decry this problem as just another in a long series of anti-Christian efforts to take the focus off the real reason for the season. Yet, every year as we shake our heads over this, it is our own Christmas spending that sends businesses into the black after 11 months of operating at a loss – and that arguably, therefore, inadvertantly contributes to the loss of focus on Christ. And ironically, while businesses go into the black at this time of year, many of our home budgets go into the red as we rack up credit card purchases at 24% APR and continue to pay on them until next year’s Black Friday. The justification I have always heard for these exorbitant expenditures is usually that we give to one another to remember and commemorate the Lord’s gift to us and/or the gifts the Magi brought to Christ. And then we force Walmart to double its staffing on December 26 to handle all of our returns and exchanges.

How do we manage to miss our inconsistency?

Why aren’t we giving the money we spend on these things to the Lord, whose birthday it is?

How many find themselves having to cut back on support for missionaries to pay the MasterCard bills?

How do we manage to miss our inconsistency?

And then there’s the “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” issue. This one has certainly gotten its fair share of air-time this Christmas season. I’ve seen 20-minute segments about this. And I’ve read about suggested boycotts against certain stores where employees are instructed to greet customers with “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

But remember the etymology issue? Well, let’s look at it another way. The word holiday comes from the words holy days. So, at this time of year, the holy day is Christmas – and therefore “Happy Holidays” could be regarded as a religious (rather than secular) reference to the birthday of Jesus.

Eric Messelt also tackles this issue in his blog:

On to the next controversy – one that is more “popular.” This is the “Merry Christmas” verses “Happy Holidays” greeting controversy. This is along the lines of the “He’s the Reason for the Season” catch-phrase. In fact, the birth of Jesus is not completely the reason for the season. I’ve mentioned this before (http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/2008/12/reason-for-season.html), but the fact is that there were pagan Winter Party seasons long before our Lord was born.

At the end of my thinking on this, I am resigned to recognize that our society confounds the pagan and Christian meaning of “Christmas.” Frankly, I appreciate the honesty of secular and pagan people to stop calling what they do during this time of the year, “Christmas.” I don’t like that the excesses and rowdy revelry are associated with Jesus. They still don’t get the idea of “holiday,” of course. But if this is merely a “Happy Holiday” for them, fine. It still – very much – is about Christ to me.

Let me take that “Happy Holidays v. Merry Christmas” controversy a step further. I believe that it was the redeeming and lifting effect of the gospel on the pagan-infested roots of Western Civilization that changed the course of the Winter Party season into the Christmas season. But not completely – there are still plenty of pagan influences. It is expected, within ‘Christian’ nations to not only celebrate the birth of Jesus, but also to have a rowdy ‘good time.’ That is, to be “merry.”

Let me pull back a bit. In the U.S., it is customary to wish each other a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” My time in the U.K. taught me another custom. There, people say it ‘backwards;’ they wish each other a “Happy Christmas and Merry New Year.” Now why the switch as the sentiment crossed The Pond is unknown to me, but I have pondered on the difference of meaning between the words “merry” and “happy.” To most, the words are exactly the same and so it’s a distinction without a difference. But the words are different and carry different meanings. Currently, “merry” means “full of or showing lively cheerfulness or enjoyment;” while “happy” means “feeling or showing pleasure, contentment, or joy.” When *I* think of the two words in connection with Christmas, I associate “merry” with the party stuff, while I associate “happy” with the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” stuff.

So I’m adopting the British practice of wishing people a “Happy Christmas.” Now, here’s what I’m NOT going to do. I’m NOT going to castigate, insult, or take exaggerated offense if other Christians continue to use the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Additionally, I’m not going to think less of them privately. I am merely going to make the shift myself and see what happens.

So “Happy Christmas” to my Jesus-following friends! “Merry Party-time” to my pagan friends (hoping they’ll come to their senses about Jesus), and may this next year be a time of peace, prosperity, and health because of the grace of God in our lives.

I realize this is a lot of “spilt ink” for a blog on a website about biblical integrity – but on the other hand, it is about being consistent, keeping our priorities right and not unnecessarily looking foolish or ignorant – which I think are matters of integrity for believers.

So, I do hope you had a very happy / merry Christmas / Xmas / holiday.

And I do trust that as we begin a new year, we will do so with Christ as the reason for every day, not just the next season that is twelve months away.

2 Comments
  1. Love this one! But the translator in me has a note to add:
    As I was reading I began contemplating whether those good-willing defenders of Christian etymo-theology have ever considered what the non-English-speaking part of Christendom loses when they cannot listen to fired-up sermons or engage in fierce debates over `Frohe Weihnachten!`, Felis Navidad!, `Joyeux Noel!`, `Natale allegro!`, `Boldog Karácsonyt!` and I could continue the long list of non-English words for Christmas that have nothing (and never had anything) to do with the name of Christ.
    And finally a passage comes to mind (although the original context is a bit different) that the Apostle Paul would probably apply to the situation today “… command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” 1. Tim 1:3-7

    • Hey Lajos,

      Don’t know if you made it up or stole it from another thief :-), but I love the term “etymo-theology.”

      BTW – glad to get your email address – I had lost track of you and tried to connect through Facebook a few weeks ago.

      Dave

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