According to some reports, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has banned Christmas. This is an exaggeration, but it does appear that staff were asked to “think Seasons Greetings rather than Merry Christmas.”
When asked about this in the Commons, the Energy Secretary Ed Davey replied with a two word answer: “Merry Christmas.” Meanwhile, Eric Pickles made it abundantly clear that there was room for Christmas in his department.
Before the advent of PC, the leading linguistic threat to Christmas was X, as in ‘Xmas’ – an abbreviation that has been setting teeth on edge for decades, if not centuries.
In a fascinating piece for Vox, Brandon Ambrosino recounts the history of this seemingly profane four letter word:
“You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Keep Christ in Christmas,’ either on a church sign, or a Facebook wall. You might have even heard it this month. The idea is always the same: let’s not rub out the religious roots of this holiday by saying ‘Xmas,’ instead of Christmas.”
And yet Christ is in Xmas. Indeed, X marks the spot:
“In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word Christos (Christ) begins with the letter ‘X,’ or chi…
“In the early fourth century, Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306-337, popularized this shorthand for Christ. According to legend, on the eve of his great battle against Maxentius, Constantine had a vision that led him to create a military banner emblazoned with the first two letters of Christ on it: chi and rho.”
The story then moves on to England:
“Most scholars agree that the first appearance of this abbreviation for Christmas dates to 1021, ‘when an Anglo-Saxon scribe saved himself space by writing XPmas,’ reported First Things. Parchment paper was quite expensive, so any techniques for saving space were welcome. The abbreviation stuck and eventually was shortened to Xmas.”
It’s been cropping up ever since, but it’s only quite recently that it’s become a symbol of secularisation. Writing from an American perspective, Ambrosino places the matter within the context of America’s ‘culture wars.’ The British perspective is a little different. The efforts of certain bureaucrats not withstanding, we don’t have much of a problem with wishing each other a Merry Christmas. For instance, the American expression ‘Happy Holidays’ has not caught on over here – for which we can be grateful.
What Xmas signifies to a disapproving British audience isn’t so much the long march of political correctness, but rather the crass commercialisation of Christmas. Whereas the abbreviation once served to save precious parchment, it now helps with the composition of advertising slogans and newspaper headlines.
It doesn’t help that X is a sign of anonymity, negation and even obscenity. However, X is also a cross – and, as such, makes the link from one of the two great Christian festivals to the other: the Christmas wreath stripped bare to reveal a crown of thorns.
So, don’t look down on Xmas, it contains all the meaning in the world.
(That said, let me wish readers a blessed and peaceful Christmas. The Deep End returns in the New Year.)