Friday, December 24, 2010


This first came out in my "Showbiz Lengua" column in the December 2004 issue of YES! Magazine. It is now in my book Showbiz Lengua: Chika & Chismax about Chuvachuchu (Anvil Publishing, 2009), a compilation of the YES! language columns.

The X in Xmas
By Jose F. Lacaba

In show business, X spells sex.

X-rated was originally a classification for movies with content considered unsuitable for minors, such as frontal nudity and extreme violence. (Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight was X-rated when it first came out.) But the term eventually attached itself to hardcore pornography, movies with extreme close-ups of genitals and explicit sex, showing actual penetration, not just a simulation. Movies with lots and lots of explicit sex, especially the gross and kinky variety, went on to bill themselves as XXX, or triple X.

In comic books that eventually crossed over to movie screens, the X-Men were mutants with superhuman abilities, feared and hated by a world of humans that they are sworn to protect. And the X-Files in the long-running TV series dealt with unexplained phenomena and unidentified flying objects.

In algebra, x is the unknown quantity. In test papers, x is the mark the teacher gives to a wrong answer. And in documents requiring a signature, X is what you write in place of a name if you’re a “no read, no write” person.

In other words, x is a synonym for smutty, strange, or stupid.

Which is why there’s sometimes a big brouhaha about the X in Xmas. “Bring Christ back into Christmas!” goes the cry.

I have news for these conscientious complainants: X also stands for Christ.

Xmas is not something invented by space-saving headline writers and attention-catching advertising executives. “Since the sixteenth century Xmas has been used in English as an abbreviation for Christmas,” according to Webster’s Word Histories (Merriam-Webster, 1989).

As members of fratricidal Greek-letter societies probably know, in the Greek alphabet the letter chi, the first letter in Christos, is written as x.

That’s where the X in Xmas came from.

“In Latin manuscripts,” Webster’s Word Histories goes on, “Christus was often abbreviated by using the first two letters of Greek Christos, chi (X) and rho (P). This abbreviation is prominent, for example, on the beautiful chi-ro pages of early medieval illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospels. When chi and rho are superimposed upon each other a symbol for Christ is formed which has had wide currency through the centuries of the Christian era. This symbol is known variously as a Chi-Rho, chrismon, or Christogram.”

Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, 1994) adds that, through the centuries, words like Christian, Christianity, christened, and Christopher were also written as Xtian, Xtianity, Xstened, and Xpofer.

So you can be sure that, this month, Xpofer de Leon will be sending Xmas cards to his Xtian friends.


R.O. said...

How edifying. I grew up with religious authorities constantly complaining of the X-ing of Christ in Christmas, so I absorbed the allergy for anything Xmassy.

TheCoolCanadian said...

"Xpofer de Leon will be sending Xmas cards to his Xtian friends"

Indeed, and they will all go to a place called Xanadu to xelebrate Xmas. He-he.

Jeepers! Some people must have too much time on their hands to invent things like what Dana Carvey as the church lady would call: "How convenient" to impose to other people their cult-ish mentality. Once a person's religiousness crosses the line into religiosity, everything runs amok.