Hey, folks! I’ve decided I’m tired of people getting all worked up about the word Xmas. The Facebook campaigns; the chain e-mails: “No more ‘Xmas’! Let’s put Christ back in Christmas!” Et cetera, et cetera.
I’ve been suspicious of these complaints, first, because my grandma used “Xmas” as an abbreviation, and by cracky, there wasn’t a more Christ-loving woman you could ever know. I don’t think for a minute that she meant to belittle Jesus with “Xmas.” My folks use it, too.
So here you go: Look it up in a reputable dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate. There, you’ll find:
Etymology: X (symbol for Christ, from the Greek letter chi (X), initial of Christos Christ) + -mas (in Christmas)
Whoa! Check it out: 1551 is waaaaay before even Grandma was born! “Xmas” has a long, long history! The sixteenth century? That was during the Renaissance! “Xmas” wasn’t something a bunch of hippies and atheists invented in the sixties!
A word’s etymology is its linguistic history; it tells you how the word developed over time, and usually, it gives you a hint to its nuances of meaning, its connotations. So: “Xmas” literally does mean “Christmas.” No one is being “exed” out here. It’s just an abbreviation that a lot of us are quite grateful for during this, one of the busiest times of the year.
There are bona fide, completely appropriate uses for Xmas. Like when you’re in a rush. Or when you’re writing on the side of a box. Or when you’ve only got so many letters and so much space on the sign.
(Or! When you’re texting!)
So let’s quit judging and punishing innocent people for using a time-honored abbreviation! (’Tis not the season for punishment!)
The “-mas” part, by the way, comes from the Old English mæsse, which means “mass” or communion service. So Christmas literally means “Christ’s mass”—the feast day where we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. If there’s one part of the word “Xmas” that’s askew in our culture, it’s the second part: Because it seems most American Christians (well, at least the Protestants, anyway) don’t take communion on Christmas Day. Seems they’d rather spend the day with their families.
Another thing: Christmastide is, by definition, “the festival season from Christmas Eve till after New Year’s Day or especially in England till Epiphany.” (The weeks prior to Christmas constitute the season of Advent, which is characterized by waiting, wanting, expecting, hoping. Google “Advent candles” and “Advent calendar” for more insights.) (Honestly: Christmas means more, if you celebrate the season of Advent before it.)
Now, let’s review what Epiphany is, because it will clear up another common holiday misconception. Epiphany has a specific meaning in the Christian religion, plus it has a generic (lowercase) meaning.
The generic meaning of epiphany is “appearance” or “manifestation”—with a connotation of “illuminating discovery” or a striking new understanding or perception. It’s a kind of revelation, a sudden grasp of an idea.
The Christian Epiphany is an official church festival day, commonly celebrated on January 6, to commemorate the arrival of the Magi (the Wise Men, the Three Kings), who had been seeking the Christ child. See, it doesn’t make sense to think of the Wise Men arriving at the manger scene only minutes or even hours after the birth. You know the song: “We three kings of Orient are; Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.”
There have been years when I set the Three Wise Men far away from our Nativity Scene in order to represent this idea: The babe is born, and the kings are on their way!
See Matthew 2:1–12; no dates or specific travel routes or times are given. (Thank goodness! One less thing for Middle Easterners to fight over!) Indeed, Matthew doesn’t even say how many “wise men from the East” there were—we just infer that there were three because three gifts were mentioned. (Pretty flimsy evidence, methinks! But it makes for a tidy story, doesn’t it, with none of the complication or awkwardness that arises when two people accidentally bring the same gift! “Oh, you brought myrrh, too? Dang, that’s what I brought!”)
Anyway, by tradition, January 6 is the day to commemorate their arrival in Bethlehem, their beholding the infant Jesus, and their giving the very first Christmas presents.
So, using the dates for Christmas and Epiphany, let’s count how many days elapse before the Wise Men’s arrival—December 25 to January 6 . . . Twelve days!
Hey, it’s the Twelve Days of Christmas! Holy smokes—and here all these advertising weasels and media numskulls have been leading you to believe that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the last twelve shopping days before Christmas!
See, now the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” makes more sense—you can see how it could be a tradition to dole out your Christmas presents over the days leading up to the Wise Men’s arrival, since they’re the ones who brought the frankincense, gold, and myrrh.
So now that we’ve had our own little epiphany, here’s a modest proposal: How about all the people who are so het up over the use of “Xmas” turn their energetic indignation against the horribly materialistic distortion of the Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Christmastide, the time between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Magi?
Yes! Feel free to spread this post around. I’d love for this to “go viral.” Let’s reclaim Xmas, and reinstate the Twelve Days before Epiphany as the “real” Christmastide!
(And while you’re at it? Next year, don’t put up your Xmas tree so early: If you leave it up through Epiphany, maybe the Wise Men will get to see it!)