“Xmas” & the Christian “Fish”: Etymology & History

“Xmas” & the Christian “Fish”: Etymology & History December 23, 2016


[public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




The following was a response to an anti-Catholic named Matthew Bell, on an anti-Catholic-dominated discussion list (called “Apologetics,” I believe).

Matthew Bell wrote:

Twice you have used the designation Xmas in the title of your posts rather than Christmas. Such is erroneous, Christ is not an X, but a title of the Lord Jesus. What would be more appropriate for you to mark with an X or remove is the latter half – …mas(s). Such would certainly be more God-honouring. Xmas is the phrase in common usage by the world whatever is so-called derivation is. Christians (not xtians) should be proclaiming Christ and making his name known, not replacing such with an X.

But then, according to Matthew, I (being a Catholic) am not a Christian . . . Perhaps Matthew frowns upon crosses and the very early Christian symbol of the fish (?). Both are symbols of Christianity and the willing atoning sacrifice on the cross of our glorious Lord Jesus for mankind. Let me explain a bit about the symbolism of the fish, for those who are unaware of this history. It is very interesting (I am half-learning it myself in order to write this — certainly in the linguistic particulars).

Fish in Greek is ichthus. It actually has five letters in Greek:

i (Greek letter iota)
x (chi)
0 (with horizontal slash in the middle) (theta)
u (upsilon)
s (sigma)

This was perhaps the original acronym: each letter stood for something else, which is why the fish was the Christian symbol (even before the cross, as I understand it).

i = Iesous = Jesus = Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Joshua
x = Christos = Christ = Messiah = literal meaning anointed
0 = Theos = God (“0” is the “th” sound; root of theology)
u = Huios = Son
s = Soter = Savior (root of soteriology)

Early Christians thus quickly identified each other (in those dangerous times) by use of the fish symbol. In so doing, they were saying they believed in “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” It was the first Christian “creed,” so to speak.

If we are to accept Matthew’s reasoning, early Christians shouldn’t have done this. They had to use all the words, lest they bring “dishonour” upon God. A fish was insufficient, just as “X” is insuffient in Xmas. But the “x” obviously represents Christ Jesus, because “Christ” in Greek starts with an “x” (i.e., chi). Thus, Xmas is derived from longstanding (indeed, ancient) Christian usage. If Christians hadn’t done this in the first place, I doubt that the secular world would have developed the custom, since it scarcely makes any sense apart from the Greek/Christian background of Christos and the fish symbolism.

But of course, Matthew must conclude (as usual) that my intention was to dishonor my Lord Jesus (even though it turns out that he does indeed know what the “x” stands for). The truth is quite otherwise. My larger point is not that all Christians should have previously known this information, but that Matthew was so quick to judge, when in fact the real issue was not at all my alleged flippancy about our Lord Jesus and bowing to worldly secularism, but his own breezy dismissal of the Greek and Christian etymology behind the usage of Xmas for Christmas. Greek was, after all, the original language of the New Testament, as Matthew surely knows.

In Christ Jesus +†+ ,

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