Chi-Rho – catacombs of San Callisto, Rome
photograph: Dnalor 01/Wikimedia Commons
It is often said that the abbreviated form Xmas “takes the Christ out of Christmas”, but this is not the case. For example, a certain Reverend Thomas Eyre wrote to a Doctor Poynter on 25th January 1807:
My Lord,—Your much esteemed favour of the 5th of December I received the day after Xmas.
The noun Christ is from Latin Christus, from Greek Χρῑστός (= Khristos), Christ, noun use of χρῑστός (= khristos), anointed, from the verb χρίειν (= khriein), to anoint. It is a translation of Hebrew māshīa χ, Messiah, literally anointed, more fully m’shīa χ yahweh, the Lord’s Anointed.
In writing the name Christ, especially in abbreviated form, X or x represents chi, the first letter of Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (also ΧΡΙϹΤΟϹ) or of χρῑστός, and XP or xp represents chi and rho, the first two letters. Hence in early times Xp̄, in modern times Xt and X, used as abbreviations of the syllable Christ, alone or in derivatives. For example:
– Xp̄en, or Xp̄n, was used for the obsolete adjective Christen, meaning Christian,
– Xp̄enned for christened,
– Xpian, Xtian, for Christian.
(When chi and rho are superimposed upon each other, a symbol for Christ is formed: ☧. Variously known as Christogram, chrismon or Chi-Rho, it has had wide currency through the centuries of the Christian era.)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written around 1100, has, for the year 1021, “on Xp̄es mæsse uhtan” (= “in the early morning of Christmas”), but the first recorded use of Xmas is in a letter dated 26th November 1551 from King Edward VI to the Lord Deputy of Ireland:
Uppon the goode com̄endable s̄rvice doon by Sr Thomas Cusack, Knight, or Chauncelor there, we be pleased that he shall have, during the tyme of his s̄rvice in th’ office of Chauncelor there, the augmentac̄on of his fee to an other sum̄e of oon hundreth pounds by the yeare moore then he hath, to be payd likewise as his other fee is payd, from X̄temmas next following.
In Rules and Customs of Standon School, a document written soon after the re-establishment of Twyford School at Standon Lordship in 1753, both Christmas and Xmas were used:
There are 4 Vacations in ye Year viz. Christmas, Shrovetide, Easter and Whitsuntide. […] On all working days in ye Xmas and Whitsuntide Vacations, ye Scholars study at ye rate of an hour and a Quarter each day & all yt go home have proportionable Tasks set them & as ye end of these is to hinder them from forgeting [sic] what they have already learn’d they ought to relate thereunto.
In a letter he wrote on 24th December 1799 to the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843), the English poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) also used both the full and the abbreviated forms (he refers to the Scottish journalist Daniel Stuart (1766-1846), manager of The Morning Post):
I am employed from I-rise to I-set (that is, from nine in the morning to twelve at night), a pure scribbler. My mornings to booksellers’ compilations, after dinner to Stuart […]. For Stuart I write often his leading paragraphs on Secession, Peace, Essay on the new French Constitution, Advice to Friends of Freedom, Critiques on Sir W. Anderson’s Nose, Odes to Georgiana D. of D. (horribly misprinted), Christmas Carols, etc., etc.—anything not bad in the paper, that is not yours, is mine. So if any verses there strike you as worthy the “Anthology,” “do me the honour, sir!” […] So much for myself, except that I long to be out of London; and that my Xstmas Carol is a quaint performance, and, in as strict a sense as is possible, an Impromptu.