English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

[We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 26, 2006.]

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” or “Xp” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

But don’t blame secularists. Blame the medieval scribes who used the abbreviations while copying Old and Middle English religious manuscripts.

In the the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first recorded example, “Christmas” is written as Xpes mæsse (Christ’s mass) in an Old English entry for the year 1021 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“And se eorl Rodbeard her oð Xpes mæsse forneal mid pam cynge wunode” (“And Earl Robert stayed here [in Westminster] with the king [William II] almost until Christmas”).

The Xp at the beginning of Xpes mæsse comes from the Greek letters Χ (chi) and ρ (rho), the first letters of the word for “Christ” in ancient Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or χριστoς (christos, anointed one).

In a Middle English citation dated around 1380, “X” alone stands for Christ in a homily by the English theologian John Wycliffe: “X betokens Christ.”

So for ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “Xp” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.”

The OED’s earliest example for the exact spelling “Xmas,” which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century letter  by an English landowner to a son who was away at school:

“I hope you will eat at Xmas some roast beef out of the old kitchen” (from John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect: Letters to his son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley and published by the The Norfolk Record Society in 2005).

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

[Note: This post was updated on March 9, 2023.]

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