The Historical War on Xmas
For a long time, I often abbreviated Christianity and Christmas to Xtianity and Xmas in class for no better reason than it was quicker. Then, one day, I had a student complain the spelling was anti-Christian. This student had been a semester-long pain in the ass (accusing me of working witchcraft on the class, among other things), but I started refraining from using the phrases, in part because I didn’t know precisely where the spellings came from. I have no interest in repeating pejoratives.
So here’s the skinny on Xianity: Christians have been abbreviating Christ as Xp or Xt for at least 1000 years.
A common symbol of Jesus even today is the chi-rho, which looks likes a fusion of the letters X and P. These are the Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. Thus, Xp. Xt is simply using the first and last letters of Christ.
So no one is trying to take Christ out of anything when they say Xmas. They’re using a millennia old Christian abbreviation.
Christmas, the Holiday of Parties
While the church has always encouraged fasting and prayer as the correct form of Christmas celebrations, the common folk never paid much attention. Christmas has a long tradition of parties and mischief. It was more like the modern day New Year’s Eve celebrations. In the Middle Ages, people passed from house to house expecting food and drink under threat of mischief. A Lord and Lady of Mischief were randomly selected among a community and treated like nobility by other celebrants. Lords served their servants expensive meals, and some people engaged and cross-dressing, reveling in a time of role-reversals.
The Year(s) the Puritans Stole Christmas
It was this frivolity, among other reasons, that led English Puritans to outlaw Christmas in the 17th century. Anyone caught celebrating the day (even as simply as serving a Christmas meal) was subject to punishment. Shops were to remain open, and ministers were not even allowed to hold religious recognition of the day.
The Puritans had already been busy clearing the calendar of religious holidays which had no Biblical basis. (That is to say, most of them.) While the birth of Jesus is Biblical, no date is given and there is no command to celebrate it. The Puritans saw such celebrations as vestiges of paganism (a claim some continue to make today, to varying degrees of accuracy) with no place in a godly society.
Puritan colonists in the New World also embraced the Christmas ban, which was punished with fines. It wasn’t until 1870 that the day became a federal holiday.
The term Santa Claus comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, Dutch for Saint Nicholas. Nicholas’s feast day is December 6, and the saint has long been connected with the care of children and the giving of gifts. Early Protestants, downplaying the role of saints, continued the gift-giving tradition but painted the Christ Child, or Christkindl (or Kris Kringle in English), as the bearer of them. Thus, it make more sense for the gifts to be given in connection with Christmas.