Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Merry Xmas, Xmas people! Xmas!

Just a brief and hip-shatteringly jolly Advent-season note to point out that what’s seen as the most commercial and crass way to write “Christmas”, that is, “Xmas”, is actually a literate and historically conscious way to write the name of the holiday.

The “X” in Xmas is not an invention of Hollywood, McDonald’s or Wal*Mart, but is in fact the Greek letter chi, the first letter in the Greek “christos”, Jesus’ title. Rudolph may have been a department-store marketing scheme, but the X is hard-core.

X as shorthand for “Christ” has a long history. For xample, at the battle of the Milvian bridge in 312 A.D., legend has it that the Emperor Constantine saw a floating mystical “chi-rho” (XP) symbol in the heavens, a portent of victory if he accepted Christianity. He ordered his soldiers to put the symbol on their shields. This was, you will note, far before the age of crappy American nu-skool spellings like “donut” and “dri-kleen”. This is about as old-school as an abbreviation can get.

This whole issue clears up a poorly researched and utterly useless factoid I read and memorized as a child in, I believe, The Book of Lists. For some reason I more or less memorized this book as a kid, although I now realize that it wasn’t as dependable as its all-list format made it seem. It was kind of like the Guinness Book of Records in that way; you knew it was sheer raving madness but the statistics-based format lent it some kind of believability. Kids are suckers for that combination of freak show and official list. I remember staring at that picture of the man with the record for longest fingernails for hours. But fingernails are at least theoretically measureable. Why was the guy with the beard of bees in the record book? What measurement did they use to calculate the record-breaking nature of his beard of bees? I call shenanigans.

Anyway, the factoid which I think was from The Book of Lists was: “Christopher Columbus always signed his name ‘Xpo Ferens’. Nobody knows why.” I barely know the rudiments of Greek or Latin, but it’s blindingly clear to me why – why nobody involved in compiling that book had half a brain cell is the true mystery. I guess this was before the Internet, when it was easy for people to propagate urban legends and claim that things were mysterious when they were really nothing of the sort. “Xpo Ferens” is just a slightly strange way of writing “Christopher”. “Xpo” is short for Greek “Christo”, which looks like “Xpisto” in Latin characters, and “ferens” is Latin for “bearing”. Christopher means Christ-bearer or Christ-ferry, as everyone who’s seen a painting of Saint Christopher must know. He was basically a kind of Blaster to Jesus’s Master, a mythical giant who carried baby Jesus across a stream, which is why he’s no longer really a saint and was dropped from the calendar. You almost expect Baby Jesus to screech, “Who rule Bartertown?” At least I do.

Anyway, my point was that if you want to say or write “Xmas”, feel free. You’ll be using an ancient Greek letter, not being cheap and commercial. Merry Xmas.

p.s. This post is dedicated to my dad, whose birthday is coming up on the 8th and who spent a lot of time and effort devising well-researched and historically inquisitive Sunday School lessons in a similar vein when we were kids. I might not be as religious as he is, but I think we both appreciate the history of religion in a similar way.


Anonymous said...

I'm Kelly,
from Singapore,
and I'm 16 y.o

Hi, All
I've studied English sinse Summer .
It's Really difficult
I want like to meet girls and practisice My English with them.


Jinna said...

Hee hee. You used the word "shenanigans."

I now feel no guilt about writing Xmas. Now could you please research the ancient roots of BTW and IMHO? :)