Isn’t this time of year sort of different? Sort of, well, special? A time when people are a little kinder, a little friendlier, a little more likely to nod and smile at all kinds of silly conventional wisdom about the holidays and their traditions? In the interest of decorating the season with a little bit of reason, we’ve asked miserly old Ken Jennings to give a rousing “Bah, humbug!” to four coal nuggets of misinformation that seem to show up under the tree every single December. So gather with us under the myth-letoe and find out which four cherished bits of Christmas lore turn out to be completely fa-la-la-la-llacious. We think Yule be surprised.
Holiday Myth #2: The word “Xmas” is a newfangled way to secularize Christmas.
When it comes to inflamed media offense over the so-called “War of Christmas,” could there be a more damning bit of evidence than the word “Xmas”? Worse than a thousand public school concerts of “winter carols” or well-meaning Target employees wishing possibly-Jewish-Muslim-or-other shoppers “Happy holidays,” “Xmas” seems to thumb its nose at Christians everywhere by literally removing the six letters of “Christ” from the name of His own birthday celebration!
Unfortunately for cable news bloviation purposes, “Xmas” is, as Simpsons fans would say, a perfectly cromulent word, with a history dating back a thousand years. The 11th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle often used the abbreviation “Xp” for “Christ,” since those letters looked like the Greek “chi” and “rho,” the first two letters in “Christ.” As a result, “Christmas” was written “Xpes maesse,” which was being shortened to “Xmas” as early as 1755. “Xmas” is older than the United States!
These early abbreviators weren’t closet atheists — they were just saving valuable time, ink, and parchment. They were also devout believers who liked the fact that the “X” of the Greek chi looked not unlike the Christian cross symbol, and who quite possibly saw the shorter spelling as more respectful, in the vein of the vowel-less Hebrew spelling of “Jehovah.” But modern Christians remain unconvinced. One English diocese was officially instructed by its bishop never to use “Xmas,” and in 1977 the governor of New Hampshire scolded the media for using what he termed the “pagan” spelling. When it comes to holiday controversy, X still marks the spot.
Quick Quiz: What word—not Xmas!—is used to represent the letter X in the radio phonetic alphabet: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, and so on?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead, out now. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user Gene Hunt. Used under a Creative Commons License.