Origin of Xmas: It’s All Greek to Me

This post is about the origin of Xmas, not Christmas. Confused? I’m talking about the origin of Xmas the abbreviation, not the holiday. (I assume you know the origin of the holiday.)

Every year around Christmas, you invariably hear from someone who’s offended by the word Xmas. “That takes the Christ out of Christmas!” goes the usual refrain.

The fear is that Xmas is not holy enough. Using X instead of Christ seems to make the holiday less religious.

But the origin of Xmas is anything but secular. In fact, the use of X is rooted in belief—and the Greek language.

origin of xmas

“Give Her a L’Aiglon for Xmas” reads the caption of this 1922 ad in the Ladies’ Home Journal.

The Greek Origin of Xmas

The X in Xmas is the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter in the word Χριστός. Χριστός is the Greek spelling of Chrístos, or “Christ.”

So writing Xmas isn’t an attack on Christianity. In fact, it was started by Christians.

In a 2004 BBC article on the origin of the abbreviation Xmas, historian and author Bill Purdue is quoted as saying that the abbreviation was likely used by clergymen who knew ancient languages.

The X in Xmas is the first letter in the Greek word for “Christ.”

Before Xmas, though, there was XPmas.

The same BBC piece quotes an assistant editor of etymology, or word origins, at Oxford English Dictionaries. Inge Milfull says that she has found references to XPmas going almost a thousand years. She surmises that the P was dropped later.

Here’s where the P fits into the origin of Xmas. P is the Greek letter rho, which is the next letter in the word for “Christ.”

Have you seen XP anywhere before? Of course you have. Christian churches often use the monogram on altars, banners, and religious objects.

origin of xmas

The Greek XP, or chi-rho, symbolizes Christ. The Greek letters alpha and omega flank chi-ro; Jesus called himself “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:13)

Why the Xmas Abbreviation?

Milfull says that at a time when parchment was expensive, the choice to write X instead of Christ may have been a a matter of saving money. Anything that saved space in a religious text would have been desirable. (Just think about how many times the word Christ appears in your average Bible.)

Those who wrote X instead of Christ, then, were not trying to “take the Christ out of Christmas.”

In fact, the Christ part has always been intact—it’s just been in Greek.

“Why get cross about Xmas?” BBC.
“Xmas,” Online Etymological Dictionary.

Share this post if you learned something—and Merry Xmas!

If you’re looking for more Christmas content, then read about what the holiday is like in Slovakia or Colombia or see why I think The Polar Express is a must-have for any parent.