The Greek name for Christ, used hundreds of times in the New Testament, is Χριστός. The first Greek letter, chi, looks like an “X” in English. For centuries, going back to at least the fourth century, Christians have used X as a symbol for Christ, often combined with the second Greek letter of Christ’s name, rho, which looks like a “P” in English (see the header image of this article for an example).
In church history, X has been used to abbreviate Christ, Christians, and Christmas (X, X-ians, and X-mas). “The first use of X in an abbreviation for Christmas dates all the way back to an Anglo-Saxon scribe in 1021, who wrote ‘XPmas’ as shorthand,” notes Lifeway Research on “Why X-mas Actually Keeps Christ in Christmas.” The same article notes that “‘Xmas,’ specifically, appeared in the letters of writers like Lord Byron and Lewis Carroll in the 1800s. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used it in 1923.”
In other words, Christians invented X-mas. It’s a modern myth that X-mas “takes the Christ out of Christmas.” Even the staunch Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul exposed this myth and thought it was silly to be scandalized by the abbreviation. So why do so many Christians get riled up about it? Because we live in “fight the culture war” mode. Cultural norms are shifting, we’re fearful, and so we see everything as an “attack” on Christ and Christians.
Even if some unbeliever said “X-mas” in a conscious attempt to “take Christ out of Christmas,” they probably got the idea from their Christian neighbors. Growing up in public school, I never once heard someone do this, though I’ve had Christians warn me about the “war on Christmas” with “X-mas” as exhibit A. In an article titled “Keep the X in X-Mas,” CT reports that the abbreviation offends 6 in 10 evangelicals. It’s hard for me to take such a person seriously. I can’t imagine how my unbelieving neighbors feel.
This, then, is the point: Getting riled up over “X-mas” makes us look silly, fearful, and ignorant. No one’s going to ask us about the hope that lies within us when we make mountains out of things that aren’t even molehills.
Finally, let’s reclaim our symbols. I use X to abbreviate Christ on a regular basis (e.g., in the margins of my Bible to signal a verse with special Christological significance, or when I run out of characters on Twitter). In a piece for First Things, Matthew Schmitz calls Xmas “The Ancient and Grand Abbreviation.” Let’s seize X-mas as an opportunity to say to our neighbors, “Hey, did you know what Christians invented X-mas? It’s the first letter of the Greek name for Christ in the New Testament. Has anyone ever told you why Christ came at Christmas?”