In December 1963, it was considered questionable taste to use styrofoam letters toothpicked together to spell out “Merry Xmas” in a family Christmas picture for our family Christmas cards. Why the X? Because we couldn’t get the whole word “Christmas” to hold together without collapsing into a mess of vowels and consonants. We certainly tried. So my dad made a special run back to the crafts store to buy an X so we could get this picture done while his three children were still spit combed, and polished clean.
I vaguely remember my mother being a bit reluctant to use the abbreviation “X” to represent “Christ” in Christmas, as she thought it might offend a relative or two as possibly disrespectful, but we did send a copy of this picture out to the 100+ people on her list, and I don’t recall any fall out.
It turns out there is good reason for the traditional “X” in XMAS, and it is not to make Christmas advertising more compact, using less expensive space. It represents the first letter Chi of the name Christ in the Greek alphabet (Χριστός) and was used as an abbreviation for Christ (sometimes as below in the symbol known as the labarum, in combination with the “P” that represents the Greek letter “Rho”). This was sometimes a secret communication device between Christians, and often displayed overtly in worship settings. So the X is, in fact, a name for Christ, in shorthand. There is no disrespect meant, but rather a way that religious community members could easily find each other in sometimes oppressive circumstances.
Now, 52 years after this photo was taken, it’s the styrofoam that causes offense, knowing it will never break down in landfills, and simply can’t be destroyed without inflicting environmental damage. But the X representing Christ is here to stay. It may offend those who do not acknowledge the reality of God who walked the earth, dying in our place, broken in body only. His truth and spirit rose again and cannot and will not ever be destroyed.