Every year we Christians hear about the battle between saying “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” Now that texting and social media have become ubiquitous, characters matter so people write Xmas instead of Christmas. We can get all flustered by thinking about how Christ’s birth has been secularized or we can celebrate the joy of that birth. So many modern “secular” things have deep Christian roots and this is most evident at Christmas time.
Have you ever wondered why we use an X not a C for Xmas? Well, it’s because it isn’t really an X, it’s a Chi. Chi is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek (and has a CH sound): Χριστός. When ink and paper cost a lot of money, shorthand would be used for economy’s sake. X’temmas dates from 1551 and Xmas dates from 1753 – that is far before modern secularization. The Greek name Χριστός is also responsible for one of the most visible Christian symbols the Chi-Rho (see picture) which uses the first 2 letters of Jesus name. (What looks like a P is Rho which makes an R sound.)
#2 Happy Holidays
One thing that drives some Christians crazy is being constantly greeted by “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Merry and happy mean essentially the same thing so the dispute is not there. But why “holiday” instead of “Christmas”? “Holiday” is made up of 2 words “holy” and “day” – it just suffers a fairly standard vocalic change where Y becomes I when put in the middle of a word. In fact its origin is in Olde English from halig ”holy” + dæg ”day.” And it’s plural too so it reminds us to celebrate Mary Mother of God on January 1 and Epiphany on the first Sunday after that, instead of restricting our joy to Christmas alone.
#3 Season’s Greetings
This is a phrase that really irks some Christians. However, since it’s used for the entire month of December, it has to refer to liturgical seasons and not to the season of winter which doesn’t start till December 21. If we wished each other “Season’s Greetings” for a month at the start of fall, summer, and spring as well, then it would make sense as referring to the season of winter. This phrase specifically tries to avoid any religious context but inevitably uses it. When people use this we should respond appropriately “Happy Advent Season” or “Happy Christmas Season” since that is what they mean even if they don’t realize it.
#4 Santa Claus
You’ve probably heard that Santa Claus originates with St. Nicholas but most of you probably wondered like I did: how do you get “Santa Claus” out of “St. Nicholas”? Well, the origin is in a Dutch figure called Sinterklaas which is how they say “SaintNicholas” in their dialect. St. Nicholas was famous for giving gifts and we’ve transferred that to Santa Claus. True, it might be better if we told kids it St. Nicholas is bringing gifts but given our current situation, I think we are often better off reminding them that Santa Claus is St. Nicholas.
There is a little debate about the origin of the Christmas tree, and I think we can use all the Christian symbolism in its origin. Historically, December 24 was the feast of Adam and Eve, so the Christmas tree was meant to symbolize the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for which they ate, or the new tree of life coming with Jesus (the cross). Others say that its origin points to eternal life since conifers (the type of tree used for Christmas trees) stay green year-round. St. Boniface cut down an oak that the Germans worshipped and replaced it with a Christmas tree, pointing out that the triangular shape represented the Trinity. All the meetings at its origin are Christian and can teach us something.
Wreaths first became a symbol back in ancient Rome where they symbolize the victory. The Christmas wreath symbolizes Christ’s victory over death. Originally, wreaths were made with holly. This had a double meaning: the Druids believed Holly was magical because it remained shiny and green in December so they weren’t to keep away demons, and the church and culture rated this linking holly with Christmas; holly was also given the symbolism of the crown of thorns when worn as a wreath. Today, evergreens are more common than Holly in Christmas wreaths: like Christmas trees, this symbolize eternal life that Christ brings us. Much of the tradition of modern Christmas wreaths also comes via Advent wreaths which is a whole other topic.
In the end, I’m not saying that we should prefer such things. My point is double: we should not be offended by such things and we should teach others what their meanings are so they too will know about their Christian origins. Merry Christmas!