Keep the X in Xmas: An inclusive perspective on the meaning of Christmas
This article is neither for nor against the traditional Christian meaning of Christmas. It stems from a desire to define a broader perspective: One that respects this traditional meaning, while also extending the meaning of the holiday to those for whom this tradition is not meaningful.
The starting point is a fact. For those of us who live in the Western world, Christmas is part of our world, whether the holiday has religious meaning to us or not. It’s a big part of our culture, in the broadest possible sense of the word culture. That is, it has a big impact on our lives, were it only because of its impact on the economy, and all the marketing that goes with it.
Talking about cultural facts: In the Western world, we measure time in reference to the year Christ was born, whether we think of this scale as ‘AD’ (Anno Domini) or ‘CE’ (Common Era). For many people, referring to this year as 2015 has very little to do with religious faith, while for some people it may be especially meaningful to think of it as ‘the year 2015 of our Lord’.
In other words, we live in a word where a multiplicity of meanings are possible, and not necessarily mutually exclusive. About Christmas, about the way we measure time, about what is important in politics, about what truly matters in life…
It is not in any way derogatory to the meaning of Christmas to notice that the way of celebrating the holiday has evolved over time. As the Christian religion extended through Europe, the celebration of the birth of Christ merged with the much more ancient pagan ritual of celebrating the winter solstice, and the festivals of light. Combining both does not reduce the spiritual value that the holiday has for Christians. In fact, one can argue that it has enriched it. I am not making this point from a personal, subjective point of view. I am simply referring to the fact that this combination has endured through the centuries, to the point that we now take it for granted.
So, historically, what we call Christmas is both a religious holiday, and the current manifestation of a more ancient pagan ritual that has to do with a way of making sense of the world we live in: Every year, darkness increases, progressively takes over most of the day, until at some point, around the end of the third week of December, light starts growing again. In the height of darkness is the beginning of more light.
If the Christian tradition has meaning for you, of course keep Christ in Christmas. But Christmas need not be limited to the meaning it has within a Christian context.
For one thing, there is the solstice tradition, and all of its meaning. But there is also all the hoopla that we culturally created around the holiday: Santa Claus… Dreaming of a white Christmas… Rudy’s red nose… And, last but not least, all the potlatch consumption. For better or worse, all these practices are a big part of how we express celebration in our culture. We may have a love-hate relationship with them, but they are our tradition.They are very meaningful in the sense that they are an integral part of the way we experience the world. So, even if Christ is not what makes it Christmas for you, you can still find some meaning in Christmas. The meaning it has is up to you.
Now, why does the title refer to Xmas as opposed to Christmas? One obvious reason is to keep the structure of the ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ phrase, while actually extending its meaning to a much more inclusive perspective. But there is also a symbolic value.
The ‘X’ in Xmas is actually not our letter ‘X’, the one we use as a variable in equations or to represent unknown quantities. It stands for the Greek letter that is pronounced ‘chi’ and is the initial of ‘Christos’. The letter ‘chi’ was imbued with meaning by the early, Greek-speaking Christians. But this need not be the only meaning of the letter 'chi'. At Xmas, we honor the fluidity and diversity of meaning.