All roads lead to Greece
When researching the meaning behind historic cemetery symbols, I often joke that “all roads lead to Greece.” Here’s a good example: While looking into the meaning of the XP symbol that is such a common sight in historic cemeteries, I had a realization.
Xmas is perfectly respectful
An XP symbol on a headstone is a Christian symbol. Since Christ’s name starts with the letters X and P when spelled in Greek, XP is often used as shorthand for “Christ.” (I will go into more detail about the XP symbol in a future post.)
That’s when it hit me: You see, up until that moment, I had assumed that “Xmas” was a non-religious way of spelling “Christmas.”
As it turns out, there is nothing secular or disrespectful in the use of Xmas for Christmas.
In fact, “Xmas” traces its origins back to ancient religious scribes. There is nothing new about it at all! It’s just that 1000 years ago, a clever scribe realized that the Greek letter Chi, which is written as X, was a useful substitution for “Christ,” not just in the word Christmas, but in other words such as christian (xtian) and christianity (xtianity.) To them, “Xmas” was a perfectly respectful shorthand for “Christmas.”
It’s not just religious scribes who avoid hand cramps with this clever abbreviation. Florists have been known to prune the lengthy word “Chrysanthemum” by spelling it “Xant.” And in the 17th and 18th centuries, “Christine” was often spelled “Xene” or “Exene.” (Another epiphany for me as a fan of the punk band X, who’s lead singer changed the spelling of her first name to Exene! )
I should also point out that when you pronounce the word “Xmas” as “exmas,” you are again missing the point!
Yet another modern misconception
Somewhere along the line, the mistaken idea that Xmas is a disrespectful term took hold. Many modern style guides, for instance, discourage the use of Xmas and it’s rare to see Christmas spelled that way on holiday cards.
For now, at least, you and I both know the true meaning of Xmas! Merry Xmas to you and yours. :)
More posts about historic cemetery symbolism:
I am currently writing a book called Messages from the Dead: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism. I share excerpts from my research (such as the post you just read) on this blog. It’s my goal to create a handy-dandy pocket guide for taphophiles, genealogists, ghost hunters, and anyone else interested in the historic graveyard symbols that have become forgotten over the years.
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