Evangelical Christians are an unusual lot, especially at Christmas time. I am always amused how a significant minority eschew Christmas on the premise that its origins can be traced to the Roman Catholic Church. Others celebrate the holiday, while lamenting its secularization, pointing out that “X” has even replaced “Christ” in Christmas!
Such claims, which have no foundation in fact, somehow find their way into evangelical thinking, and in turn influence one’s perspective of Christmas. Over the next few days we will examine these and many similar assertions and show that they fall far short of truth. Today we look at the first two.
CLAIM 1: CHRISTMAS IS A ROMAN CATHOLIC
This claim is based on the thesis that the word Christmas is derived from Christ-mass, and is thus linked to the Catholic sacrament of holy mass. This conclusion, however, is erroneous.
Any authorized dictionary will reveal that the English word “mass” evolved over the years from the Anglo-Saxon maesse, which in turn was derived from the Latin missa, meaning “to send.” Consequently the etymological meaning of Christmas is “Christ is sent.” Therefore, the term actually represents the true nature of the holiday. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman . . .” (Gal. 4:4).
CLAIM 2: CHRIST HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM CHRISTMAS
While some fearful retailers have instructed their store clerks to greet shoppers with the less offensive “Happy Holiday” rather than the traditional “Merry Christmas,” the “X” in Christmas is not a secular substitute for Christ.
A number of years ago George Beverly Shea wrote a popular Christmas song that went like this: “Don’t wish me a Merry Xmas or a happy holiday. Put Christ back into Christmas on this happy holy day.” While the catchy lyrics are still being sung today, they are based on an erroneous claim that “X” in Xmas is an irreverent attempt to remove Christ from Christmas. The facts prove otherwise.
Xmas has a long history. X is the Greek letter chi (pronounced ki) and is the first letter in the Greek word Christos. The early church used it regularly as an abbreviation for Christ, just as we use “W” to refer to George Bush. Abbreviations such as FDR, JFK, or LBJ are used commonly as a device to shorten a word or words, while retaining the clear identity of the person.
Wycliffe, Tyndale and a host of other devoted Christians throughout church history have abbreviated the name Christ with the simple use of X. Obviously they were not attempting to remove Christ from their vocabulary. Xmas has been a legitimate way of referring to Christmas since the first century until now.
The next time you see Xmas scrawled across a display window or written in big green or red letters on a banner over the perfume counter; use the occasion to explain to the sales person the origin of the word. It will make for a great witnessing opportunity.