Christmas, Xmas

Christmas has a rather straightforward and obvious etymology. It is Christ’s mass, the religious service and festival associated with Jesus’ birthday. The word dates to the late Old English period. The Old English cristesmæsse isn’t found in any extant text written prior to c. 1000, but it’s likely to be older and those older uses simply don’t survive.

One of the earliest uses is by Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York who died in 1023. The word appears in a short piece of his entitled Be cristendome (About Christianity) that outlines the payments a good Christian makes to the Church:

And leohtgescot gelæste man be wite to Cristes mæssan and to candelmæssan and to eastron, do oftor se, ðe wylle.

(And one should pay the light-fee as payment at Christmas and Candelmas and Easter, or more often if one desires.)

The leohtgescot (light-fee) was a contribution to keep the lights burning in the church, the medieval equivalent of paying the church’s electrical bill. (Yes, the irony of a text titled About Christianity being about tithes and offerings is not lost on the astute reader. Those modern televangelists begging for money are simply the latest in a long tradition.)

The abbreviation Xmas is not an attempt to remove the Christ from Christmas. The X got its start as the Greek letter chi, the first letter in Christ’s name. It was common practice in medieval manuscripts to abbreviate Christ’s name with an X or XP, the P or rho being the second letter. For example, in the entry for 1101 in the Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we find:

Her on þisum geare to Xpes. mæssan heold se cyng Heanrig his hired on Westmynstre.

(Here in this year at CR’s mass King Henry held his court in Westminster.)

The abbreviated form Xmas appears later. The OED has a 1551 citation for X’tenmas and Xmas itself from c. 1755. In a 1799 letter, Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to an Xstmas Carol, the form of which shows that it is an abbreviation for Christ.


Dictionary of Old English: A to G Online, University of Toronto, 2007, s. v. cristes-mæsse.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. Christmas, n.; Xmas, n.

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