For all the hubbub about using “Xmas” instead of “Christmas” as shorthand (and in some cases where people intentionally desire to erase any reference of Christ from Christmas by using Xmas), the ironic, historic truth remains that ancient Christians utilized the Greek letter Chi and letter symbol Chi-Rho as a means to represent Jesus Christ. Such symbols are called christograms.
You see, the name Jesus Christ in Greek, the language of the New Testament texts, is Ἰησοῦς Χριστός. The first letter of the title Christ (signifying Jesus as the anointed one, the Messiah) looks like our English X and became a convenient, somewhat obscure way for early Christians in the catacombs and elsewhere to identify artistic representations of Jesus and Christian markings, signs, or art – similar to use of the Christian fish symbol.
Later, the Emperor Constantine I had a dream that he should put the “heavenly divine” symbol of Chi-Rho on his army’s shield before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge to guarantee victory. He did just that, won the battle, and turned the formerly pagan empire into a Christian one. The Chi-Rho symbol became and remains one of the most common christograms used in sacred and liturgical settings. In fact, it is often used as part of the modern Christmas tradition of the Chrismon Tree. Invented by a Lutheran in Danville, Virginia in 1957, this practice is now popular in many congregations throughout the United States and across denominational lines.
As I find the debate over the use of Xmas somewhat distracting if not tedious and dislike the rush toward Christmas only to hide it away from the public eye as soon as December 25th passes, I try to experience Advent as a true time of expectant waiting and preparation. I also make an effort to enjoy the traditional Christmas period lasting twelve days through Epiphany on January 6th. So last year as Christmas approached, I posted an image I had found by Orthodox iconographer Raymond J. Mastroberte on Facebook saying, “Keep Chi in Christmas…Because early Christians used Greek abbreviations!” The illustrator’s image struck my sometimes questionable funny bone, and I playfully proclaimed that I would be putting the Chi in Christmas all twelve days.
In the context of our modern conundrum over Xmas, it wasn’t long until someone missed my attempt at humor. They argued that surely since Jesus Christ had done so much, suffered and died for our sake, we could most certainly take the time to spell out his name in full. It was as if the ancient Christian signs and symbols were suddenly disrespecting our Lord. And so, my attempt at lighthearted banter fell as another victim of this modern culture war.
As the past few years attest, an annual argument has indeed arisen about the secularization and explicit anti-Christian elements of our Christmas celebration. It should be expected, for in school gatherings and shopping malls, on public plazas and in our homes, religious symbols for Christ and his birth have come to be often replaced by winter scenes, Santa and his reindeer, snowmen, cute penguins or polar bears…the list goes on and on. In fact, some suggest that many Americans can’t specify what the Christmas holiday commemorates.
In opposition to Christmas, one atheist author argues that there is historically no proof that “Christ is the reason for the season.”[i] They suggest that winter celebrations have always existed, and such a modern mantra is only a Christian attempt to assert their cultural superiority over everyone else. Sadly in the name of multiculturalism, echoing choruses of Merry Christmas can be explicitly prohibited in some environs. Yes, just as there was no room at the inn on the original Christmas Eve, there seems to be no room in our public lives for Jesus today.
Yet, let’s not be too quick about things, as there are other signs to look for. Gallop found, “Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, and of these, 51% describe the holiday as ‘strongly religious’ for them, continuing an upward trend seen since 1989.” This 2010 poll also found a majority of Americans self-reported “incorporating specific religious activities or symbols into their holiday celebrations. This includes 62% who attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 65% who display decorations with a religious meaning, and 78% who take time to reflect on the birth of Christ.”[ii] Self-reporting surveys can prove inflated, but we can see signs of hope for our beloved holiday.
Nevertheless, further confusing this debate, this same Gallop study found many more Americans were likely to practice secular traditions (in the ninetieth percentile range, depending upon the activity) than religious. Sadly, a recent poll by Think Finance claimed that 45% would rather skip Christmas due to the debt accumulated from gift giving.[iii] Others seasonally face bouts of depression or other mental illnesses magnified by their isolation or sense of loss during the holiday season, and thus they dread Christmas’ arrival.[iv]
Amidst debates and arguments, blinded by bobbles, decorations, and good deals, we can forget that our redemption is drawing near. Our time on earth is short, and we should live with hopeful and loving expectation as if Christ will indeed come soon. Signs of trouble and even outright persecution are nothing new. Jesus promised us such as these in his prophesies, comparing them to birth pangs.[v]
Should we then be so surprised that people are confused, lost, and hurting when it comes to Christmas and more importantly Jesus Christ? Should we let this distract us from our call as a holy people living together in Jesus’ holy name? Intentionally seeking the newborn Christ in our own hearts, we can repent of our own errors and grow in faith. Living as part of his body through our shared ministry of preaching, teaching and baptizing, or accepting and loving others (even our enemies) as they are, we can be used by God to bear Jesus into the world.
The devil’s in the details, and so it appears with our modern Christmas. Let’s not get anxious about the holiday – lost in empty debates or the holiday wrapping of materialism. As Christians, we are called to celebrate!
Look to the true heart of Christmas toward Jesus Christ himself, the final Word on this argument, come to save us. Whatever we choose to do and however we choose to say it, let’s seek to make Christ known every day. Look past the veneer of our time and see those suffering and alone around us. Enter relationship with them, help them, or guide them toward people who can. Celebrate the truth of Christ’s coming within every aspect of our lives – for the love of Χριστός, ourselves, and our neighbors.
There are more than enough signs of trouble and discord. Let’s not waste time dwelling upon them or pointing them out. Instead, let’s seek to be living, joyful signs that Jesus is near. That’s probably the best way for any of us to wish the world a meaningful Merry Christmas and eternity.
My wife, Kristine, and I wish you a holiday filled with blessings. May those same blessings flow through you to help transform the lives of others.
For those interested, visit OldLuteran.com for their comical take on this debate. Access their site through the image below:
[i] Cline, C. Putting Christ Back in Christmas: Is Jesus the Reason for the Season? as downloaded from http://atheism.about.com/od/christmasholidayseason/p/JesusReason.htm on November 30, 2012.
[ii] Jones, J.M. Christmas Strongly Religious for Half in U.S. Who Celebrate It: Secular traditions more common among Americans than religious traditions. December 24, 2010 as downloaded from http://www.gallup.com/poll/145367/Christmas-Strongly-Religious-Half-Celebrate.aspx on November 30, 2012.
[iii] Berk, C.C. Why One Poll Says 45% Would Rather Skip Christmas. November 19, 2012 as downloaded from http://www.cnbc.com/id/49880517/Why_One_Poll_Says_45_Would_Rather_Skip_Christmas on November 30, 2012.
[v] See for example Luke 21: 25-36 or Mark 13:8.
The above pastoral letter was originally published in Messiah Lutheran Church and School’s newsletter, The Messenger (December/January 2012 edition) in an abridged version. To view the entire issue of The Messenger or to see the full calendar of events, visit: http://www.mlcas.org
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2012 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.