Keep the X in Xmas

I recently created this meme for the Unfundamentalist Christians Facebook page:

The intent of this picture was to refute the silly notion that replacing “Christ” with an “X” is part of a sinister plot against Christianity.

The truth of the matter is that abbreviating nomina sacra (sacred names) is a tradition that dates to the earliest days of Christianity. To preserve space and save valuable writing resources, scribes often used such abbreviations for references to God and Christ, usually by writing only the first and last letter of a word with a bar across the top.

In the meme above I included a transcription from Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th century manuscript of the Bible. Here’s the actual text from Matthew 16:16b as it appears in Sinaiticus:

In this verse we find three nomina sacra: ΧC, short for χριστὸς (Christ); ΥC, short for υἱὸς (son); and ΘΥ, short for θεοῦ (God). If you’re reading carefully you’ll notice that the letters in the abbreviations don’t seem to quite match up with the letters from the full word. That’s because Siniaticus is written entirely in uppercase letters, also known as uncials. Just as in English, many of these letters change form from uppercase to lowercase. In the nomina sacra above, C is an uppercase sigma (ς) and Υ is an uppercase upsilon (υ).

But enough with the Greek lesson. The important point is that the Greek letter X has been used as a substitute for the name of Christ since Christians started writing the texts of the Bible. It’s an expedient shortcut devoid of ill intent and in line with a long tradition of Christian scribal practice.


Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson

Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

  • David Root

    While I discount any underlying nefarious ploy “XMas” has for taking Christ out of Christmas, explaining that “X” which is AN abbreviation for “Xc” which used to be shorthand for “Christ” which makes “Xmas”… a bit of a long, scenic walk to the conclusion. Has “X” ever DIRECTLY represented “Christ”? How about “Merry XcMas” (or is that too close to “Merry Eczemas”?)? Regardless, your article certainly gets gets people thinking more about the Christ in Christmas (or Xmas…whatever).

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      There is a long tradition of X alone standing for Christ. Within the text of manuscripts themselves though, it is more common to use the first and last letter of a word for the abbreviation. I think it’s interesting to take a look at a bit of that textual history, but I apologize if the walk was too long for you! ;)

      • David Root

        That’s O.K.; they don’t let us out much. I could do for the walk. Thanks for the thought food. Good read.

  • FairyPrincessNyx

    This is very interesting.
    I do think that, at least in America, people do use it more to not have to say Christ. However, this is really awesome and I will spread it around and let people know that you can’t help but day the name of Christ. :-)

  • Gary Trembly

    Yes, X has been definitely used to refer to Christ. When the early Christians were being persecuted, they would use the symbol X in various ways to identify themselves to other Christians.

  • Jack Mace

    “X” is not just an historical substitution. “Chi” is the initial Greek letter for “XRISTOS” or Christ. Thus it is very much an abbreviation IN THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE of the New Testament.

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      Errr…did you even read my post?

      • Jack Mace

        Yes, I did, but you will note that you only made reference to “the first letter” being used. I’m sure that you understand that many folks will stop right there without the context.
        There is really no reason to get sarcastic if someone comments and fills in a blank. Let’s not go there.

        • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

          I’m not sure where you saw sarcasm in my reply. It was an honest question. I have no idea why you think I only referenced “the first letter” being used. Regardless, thanks for stopping by!


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