Advent II Getting it right for “Xmas”

It all started when two different readers took me to task over two different sides of an issue. One was a kindly, elderly woman concerned over my newspaper’s recent usage of the abbreviation “Xmas” for Christmas. The other a rather pugnacious young man, challenging me to “concede the pagan origins” of the holiday itself.

There are few things I hate more than misconceptions—whether it’s a distortion of things I care about or not, I want to get it right. I suppose it’s a trait that serves me well in this line of work. Still, trying to get it right all the time is hard. It’s time-consuming and often requires tedious work. Sometimes it even means finding out I was wrong about something—maybe bad wrong—and maybe bad wrong for a long time. But, ultimately it’s for the best.

The truth is, abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas” stretches back almost as long as there has been such a thing to abbreviate. The “X” is not meant to cross-out or remove or replace Christ. Early Christian scribes used “X” as a sort of clerical short-hand for the name of Christ, “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi. It’s also helpful to consider that, in the days of antiquity, writing materials were rather expensive. Papyrus and ink were costly and used sparingly. So, to save ink as well as space on the paper, the early Christian writers used “X” to represent Christ.

If you’re not sure, just take a closer look at all the “Jesus fish” decals found on countless automobiles down here in the Bible belt. Many of them have the letters IXOYE included, which is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” and is pronounced “icthus,” the ancient Greek word for “fish.”

The point is, well-meaning Christians who raise a stink every Advent season about “taking Christ out of Christmas” are often walking contradictions. Ironically, in an effort to protect Christian history and tradition, taking the “X” out of “Xmas” ignores both.

In the same regard are the claims that Christmas is the co-opting of an existing pagan festival by the ancient Church in an effort to squelch dissent or to wrest power from the “mystery religions” of the day. This idea is as historically credible as a Dan Brown novel, though just as prevalent.

Attempts to link the pagan festival of “Saturnalia” (typically celebrated for several days beginning around Dec. 17) are common. While I concede there might be some possible influence of certain aspects of the observance on Christmas, there is absolutely zero evidence that Saturnalia occurring on Dec. 17 had any impact on the early church’s choice of Dec. 25 as the date of the birth of Jesus.

What’s more, Christmas has no connection with the birth of the Mesopotamian deity “Tammuz,” whose death and descent into the underworld was commemorated during the summer solstice, and there’s scant evidence for any commemoration of the god’s return. Scholars dismiss that identification of Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth was predicated on adoption, co-option, or replacement of pagan equinox festivities such as those for Sol Invictus — especially given the lack of evidence for such a pagan festival on this date prior to the Christian fixation on Dec. 25 as the birth of Jesus.

It was Sextus Julius Africanus (circa 200 A.D.) who suggested Dec. 25 as the birth of Christ, long before it was connected with the pagan festivals of “Sol Invictus” or the birth of “Mithras.” That association was widely popularized in the 19th century literature by Hermann Usener, whose tenuous theories have since been largely repudiated by religion scholars across the theological spectrum. Besides, does anyone associate modern-day Christmas today with Mithras? Scour every Walmart in Western Civilization and you won’t find any “Mithrasmas” cards.

We celebrate Christmas because we cannot eradicate from our consciousness our profound awareness of the difference between the sacred and the profane. Man has an incurable propensity for marking sacred space and sacred time. There was never a more holy place than the city of Bethlehem, where the Word became flesh.

 So, was Jesus really born on Dec. 25? I doubt it, I don’t believe His actual birthdate is known. I don’t think it matters. What matters is there’s a day set aside to recognize that this momentous event occurred. Whether you believe Jesus was born on Dec. 25 or April 1, the point is that — on some holy day in human history — unto us a child was born, unto us a son was given. That is all that matters.

There was scarcely a more holy time than Christmas morning when “Immanuel” was born. Christmas is a holiday. Indeed, some would say it is the holiest of holy days.

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