“Christ” comes from a Greek word meaning “Anointed.” In Greek letters, you spell it Χριστός (khrees-TOHS). The first Greek letter is a chi, corresponding to the ch in the Latin spelling we’re all accustomed to.
If you want to wish someone Merry Christmas in Greek, you say, “Καλά Χριστούγεννα” (kah-LAH khrees-TOO-yen-nah). Χριστούγεννα is the Greek word for Christmas. Notice that letter chi right at the beginning?
That letter looks an awful lot like an X, doesn’t it. It’s not. It’s the first letter in “Christ.” When people write “Xmas,” they’re using a Greek abbreviation. It’s the same as if we wrote “C-mas” in English.
This abbreviation isn’t a modern invention, nor does it necessarily imply disrespect. In fact, there are numerous abbreviations for God, Christ, and even the Virgin Mary that appear in ancient and medieval Greek biblical manuscripts as well as on Orthodox icons.
- Χριστός is often abbreviated ΧΣ, using the first and last (capital) letters. In old-fashioned uncial Greek writing, it looks more like “XC.”
- Ἰησοῦς, the word for Jesus, is similarly abbreviated by using the first and last letters: ΙΣ (“IC”).
- The word for God, Θεός (“Theos”) is abbreviated to ΘΣ (“ΘC”).
There are several more (ΥΣ for Ὑιός, “Son”; ΠΝΑ for πνεῦμα, “Spirit,” etc.), but those are the most common. The technical term you can use to impress your friends is nomina sacra, “sacred names.” Almost all of them have been found in Greek manuscripts from third century or earlier. I guarantee you many of them can be found in the frantically scribbled notes of most seminary students!
In the Bible and on icons, nomina sacra are usually marked as abbreviations by putting a little line over them. For example, here is an icon of Jesus. If you didn’t know who it was, you could tell from the abbreviation IC XC: “Jesus Christ.”
And here is a sliver of a thirteenth-century manuscript (the opening words of the book of Romans) which uses the same abbreviation in the Greek genitive case: ΙΥ ΧΥ for Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, “of Jesus Christ.”So, the next time you are tempted to condemn someone for writing “Xmas” instead of “Christmas,” please take a moment to think about whether you’re also willing to condemn all those faithful copyists and icon writers who have used similar abbreviations almost since the beginning of Christianity.
Oh, and Καλά Χριστούγεννα!