The perennial debate again rages around the secularization of Christmas by retailers and merchants that use the Christian holiday as a sales resource rather than the theological recollection of Jesus Christ’s birth. Watching the nightly news, there are multiple examples of controversies that surround the display of the Christmas Crèche, multiple attempts to kidnap members of the statuesque Holy Family and the most striking: the use of an X as the substitution for the name of Christ rendering a double-speak Orwellian phrase… Merry Xmas.
Or perhaps Catholics need to have a refresher course in the signs and symbols that constitute part of our Catholic heritage of faith.
While the use of an X might at first glance indicate that Christ has been taken out of Christmas, there are linguistic and historical implications for this abbreviation. The often misnamed X is better known in the Greek language as a Chi. Since the earliest days of the Church, it has been used in conjunction with another Greek letter, Rho, to indicate the name of Christ. The Chi-Rho is the X and P thing we frequently see adorning everything from our sacred altars to vestments and even Episcopal coats of arms. The reality simply put is this: the use of an X really doesn’t take Christ out of our seasonal acclamation of Merry Christmas; it merely inserts and utilizes an historical and ancient Christian symbol as part of the abbreviation.
According to Catholic lore, the Emperor Constantine incorporated the Chi-Rho into the decoration of his battle shields and standards after a vision that advised him, “In this sign, you will conquer!” (In hoc signo vinces!). Armed with this Christian symbol in A.D. 310, Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, totally conquered his adversaries, conquered Rome, and became the leader of the Roman Empire. Subsequent to these events, Constantine also recognized Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, halted the persecutions of the early Church, and allowed Christianity to develop as the cohesive uniting factor for both Eastern and Western realms of the Empire.
So next time you see the Chi as a modified adaptation of Christmas, you, an educated and informed Catholic will realize that indeed no one has taken Christ out of our annual celebration, just modified the phrase with a unique blend of Greek and “Olde” English. In all of my experiences over the years teaching religion to Catholic students, I have yet to have a single student know the linguistic roots of the popular “Xmas” abbreviation.
Perhaps the real foundational cause of our surmising that this is but another example of the secularization of the Christmas season is our own lack of appreciation for Catholic historical events and the development of linguistic peculiarities that are inherent to every language on our planet. The nuances of Catholic history and traditions surround us on a regular basis, yet we are blind to their appearance in everything from civil law, to art and architecture, educational facilities, libraries, even modern pop music — tonally established by the monastic chants of the Gregorian era.
Secularization of sacred celebrations is indeed something we should always avoid. However, and most importantly, we as faithful believers in the Christian message need to become acutely aware of our heritage. In every realm of life, theological foundations surround us on a regular basis. These have changed the direction of world history. In our Catholic catechetical studies it is critically important that we teach about all aspects of the Church’s history and development and how they are correctly applied to our theological message of salvation history through Jesus Christ. If we as Catholics continue to neglect an appreciation for our treasured signs and symbols as keystones to our historical and theological “story” then we indeed will allow the antiseptic desanctification of secularism to pervade our Catholic message and traditions.
Whenever I use the Xmas abbreviation, I make it a point to write the XP (Chi-Rho) as a preface to the holiday invocation. This way, I boldly and loudly indicate that Christ indeed is in Christmas and in the rest of our lives as the ultimate symbol of hope and salvation. Perhaps all of us as Catholics need, like Constantine, to boldly use the sign and symbol of the XP (Chi-Rho) as our modern monogram against commercialization and secularism of our most sacred Catholic celebrations.
Christ is indeed here among all of us. He has not been misplaced by a linguistic abbreviation of grammatical convenience.