Over the past several years a new article of faith has seemed to pass into the pail of orthodoxy in certain corners of the evangelical world, that there is a “war” on Christmas. Some people seem positively determined to interpret every bit of available data as evidence that there is a vast conspiracy whose goal is to stamp out Christmas, and to especially stamp out any Christian association with Christmas. Quite frankly, I’m not buying it, and I’m annoyed, saddened and offended by much of it. I am saddened that some Christians so quickly disregard the command to live peaceably with all people (as much as it is up to them) and take offence at cashiers following their employer’s instruction and saying “happy holidays” to their customers and angrily replying “merry Christmas” (see Rom 12:14-21). I’m offended by the social media rants I have seen that tell me that “as a Christian” I ought to be offended by what some coffee chain does or does not print on their cups. And I am annoyed by an erroneous statement I have heard in person many times and have seen propagated online, including by some representatives of major ministries, that the use of the abbreviation “Xmas” is an effort remove Christ from Christmas and to promote secularization. I am annoyed because it is simply not true; let me be the first to say, let’s put the “X” back in Xmas!
A little history (etymology) is in order. Xmas is not a new abbreviation, in fact it dates back to the early 16th century. And precursors appear as far back as the Anglo Saxon Chronicles published in 1051. And the reason these abbreviations were used is simple, the media used for writing was enormously expensive in pre-industrial Europe, and “xmas” simply takes up less space that “Christmas” on the page. As the assistant editor for etymology of the Oxford English Dictionary put it “Parchment was expensive so anything that would save space would be welcome.”
But here is the kicker, the “X” is a symbol used in place of “Christ.” The Greek spelling of “Christ” is Χριστός. The X isn’t an “ex” it is a “chi,” the first letter in the Greek word for messiah, christos. Xmas was and is used as a Christocentric abbreviation for Christmas. The reformers used it that way, I use it that way and you should feel free to use it that way too. And there is a long history of using the “chi” or the “chi” & “rho” (the first two letters of Χριστός) together as a symbol for Christ. In fact, one of the most ancient Christian symbols is the chirho.
Yet some insist that writing “Xmas” instead of Christmas is an evil attack on Christianity. I have heard this in many forms, but it is generally along the lines of the meme at right. This is such a common sentiment in some circles that even that venerable referee of internet arguments snopes has weighed in. (And yes I know about the alleged “liberal bias” of snopes, but I have never seen any evidence of it. And quite frankly, hearing from a different perspective is something we need more, not less of anyway.)
I think what is going on is that the impulse to be “cultural warriors” is so strong among some believers, that virtually any allegation of anti-Christian activity or sentiment is not only instantly believed, it is seen as a reason to dig in and fight. While all believers ought to be jealous for the reputation of Christ, I don’t think this propensity to fight about any and everything is God glorifying.
As believers we should expect to be hated by the world, Jesus even said that the world will hate believers because it hated Him first. And not only does He say to expect to be hated, He says expect to be persecuted (see John 15:18-25). And that is exactly what happened to the early church, believers were hated and persecuted. Yet nowhere in the New Testament are believers encouraged or commanded to stand up for themselves, or fight for their rights.
There is a fascinating passage in James, the earliest of the New Testament letters. It is the only passage in the Epistles (outside of Hebrews, which I am convinced is a recorded sermon, not a letter in the true sense) that is addressed to unbelievers. The background of the passage was that wealthy land owners were withholding wages from Christian harvesters to enrich themselves. And because Christians seldom got a fair shake from the various judicial authorities, believers had little earthly recourse.
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. – James 5:1-6
At first glance this passage seems out of place in James, a letter written to the first generation of the church, offering very practical wisdom and instruction (it by far has the greatest density of imperatives of all of the books of the New Testament) about how to live in light of their new Christian faith, after all there would be no reasonable expectation that the wicked rich would be present when the letter was read, and there is no corrective action for the believer proscribed. Yet the more I studied it, a very practical purpose for this positively prophetic passage emerged. This passage reminds the readers, especially the aggrieved Christian harvesters, that their grievances have been heard by God and that His justice will never be thwarted. In other words, be encouraged God will right all wrongs, you don’t need to take matters into your own hands and fight; just maintain an eternal perspective in the face of temporal oppression.
Part of a true Christian worldview is belief in God’s sovereignty and that in the end He will execute perfect justice. The culture warrior impulse is an effective denial of God’s sovereignty, it says “we have to fight.”
Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t oppose injustice where we see it. We should, after all as Micah 6:8 says “He (that is God) has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I am saying that we shouldn’t go around spoiling for a fight. And constantly seeing everything as an attack reminds me of Proverbs 28:1 “The wicked flee though no one pursues.” I am also reminded of Proverbs 19:11 “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” When we act as if everything is an attack, for instance a business we don’t own and are not forced to patronize making a marketing decision about their coffee cups, is a grave injustice we need to fight against, we’re not acting as God’s people should.
Which brings us back to the X in Xmas. While it is certainly possible that some unbelievers don’t want to write out Christmas, because they don’t want the name of Christ associated with the winter gift giving holiday they love to celebrate. I think most people who use “Xmas” do so for the same reason the reformers did in their writings, it is shorter. It is easier to spray-paint with fake snow on a store window, it is quicker to type in a text message, and it is shorter and easier to read on a receipt.
Rather than view it as an attack on Christianity, or a personal offence, we ought to view it as an opportunity. We can ask (and then answer) people if the know what the “x” in xmas means, and then share the good news of the person and work of Christ. We can be reminded of how blessed we are to be free from persecution in America when we see xmas. And we can remind ourselves expressly that Christmas is about the messiah, the Χριστός. So let’s put down our culture warrior weapons and this year concentrate on putting the X back in xmas.