Mansoor Dahri, UK
“Christ” (“kraist”) sounds nothing at all like the letter “x” (“eks”). So why is it that Christmas can be abbreviated to “Xmas”? Some people occasionally even pronounce it jokingly as “eksmas” in reference to the fact that it can be written “Xmas” but that only begs the question.
Let’s start with the basics. What does the word “Christmas” mean anyway?
“Christmas” is short for “Christ’s mass”, a “mass” being a Christian religious gathering; the word “mass” is still commonly used among Catholic Christians.
You can see how the word “Christmas” evolved over time along with the history of the English language. In Modern English we say “Christmas”, in Middle English it was “Cristemasse”, and in Old English it used to be “Cristes mæsse” (“Christ’s mass”).
So that’s the “-mas” bit of Christmas explained. Which still leaves the question of why “X” can stand for Christ. Is it because “X” is shaped kind of like a cross which is the holy symbol of Christianity? No – that’s a nice guess but that’s not it.
Where does the word “Christ” come from anyway? Jesus Christ was born to a Jewish family in Roman-occupied Palestine so his name at birth was actually the Hebrew word “Yeshua”, which later became “Jesus” in Latin.
“Christ” is completely unrelated to any Jewish name that Jesus might have had at birth, so why is he called that? What does “Christ” mean anyway?
It’s actually a Greek word. “Christ” comes from the Ancient Greek word “Χρῑστός” (“Khrīstós”) meaning “anointed one”. It’s supposed to be a translation of and reference to the Hebrew word “מָשִׁיחַ” (“māšīaḥ”) where we get the word “Messiah”.
In other words, both “Christ” and “Messiah” mean the same thing: “anointed one”. It’s just that the former is the Greek version of the word whereas the latter is the original Hebrew version.
“Anoint” means to “cover in oil” and among the Israelites it was a mark of honour and respect. Therefore, the term is used in reference to a great future saviour i.e. the Messiah or Anointed One, someone who will be greatly respected.
Since Ancient Greek was the language of the Gospels and the Bible’s New Testament, the Greek word “Christ” was used instead of “Messiah”. The name “Jesus Christ” therefore means “Yeshua the Anointed One”.
In English, the letter combination “ch” can be pronounced in two distinct ways. Either it can be pronounced like in the word “chips” or it can be pronounced like a “k” sound like in “chaos”.
Here’s a fun rule: whenever the letters “ch” make a “k” sound it almost always means that English took this word from Ancient Greek. For example, all the following words are Greek: chaos, chord, chasm, stomach, choreography, archaeology, psychology, archaic etc.
And of course, the Greek word “Christ”. All these words were originally written using the Ancient Greek letter “χ” (“chi” pronounced “kh” like in “Khan”). Whenever English borrowed a Greek word with the letter “χ”, the sound would always be written as “ch” but pronounced as a “k”.
You might have noticed that the Greek letter “χ” looks like our letter “X”. Hence, people have used the abbreviation “Xmas” for “Christmas” since at least the year 1755. Not because “Christ” sounds like “eks” but because it begins with the sound “Ch” which is written in Greek as “χ” which resembles “X” in appearance.
So “Xmas” is actually like writing “Chmas” as an abbreviation, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. And that basically wraps it up.
To all our Christian readers, Happy Holidays and season’s greetings.
About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.