Taking Christ Out of Christmas

It’s hard to imagine the protestant culture in the southern United States from the 1950s today, but my grandparents were very anti-Catholic. When John F. Kennedy (a Catholic) was running for president, he had to make a special speech to Southern Baptist clergy in Houston to dispel rumors he would have a pipeline to the Pope.

“This wasn’t a normal campaign stop. Kennedy was Catholic and, at the time, only the second Catholic presidential candidate in U.S. history after Al Smith’s unsuccessful run in 1928. And for a Catholic candidate from New England, a conference of Southern Baptist ministers was considered the ‘lion’s den,’ ground zero for anti-Catholic political rhetoric and even outright bigotry.” (Downloaded from History.com, https://www.history.com/news/jfk-catholic-president, December 15, 2020.)

JFK said, ““[C]ontrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Still, I can remember my grandfather driving me by the Catholic church to see “the man in a black dress” (the priest) standing outside after Mass. The Anti-Christ had come to Oklahoma City. My grandmother was especially adamant about Christmas. “Christ – Mass, Johnny,” she would explain. “It’s a Catholic holiday!” Mee-maw wasn’t against the holiday, just the religious part of it, so she always signed her holiday cards, “Merry X-mas.”

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not defending the Roman Catholic Church – far from it! I’ll talk about the difference between a cross and a crucifix tomorrow, but Mee-maw didn’t know Greek and didn’t understand one of the very earliest symbols of the faith is the “X,” the Greek letter chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”

In ancient times, writing materials were very expensive, and so to save space, Christians used many abbreviations, including the letter chi with a line over it for “Christ.” Today, in some high churches, you may see the Chi-Rho used as a decoration, or a priest might be carrying a staff topped with this symbol:

It is called the “Chi Rho” symbol. Those are the first two Greek letters in the word “Christ.” The rho (“r”) is placed over the chi (“X”). It is closely connected with the Roman Emperor Constantine, who had a vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.) outside Rome. In his dream, the emperor was told, “by this sign, you will conquer!” He had the sign of Christ put on his soldiers’ shields and later created his “labarum,” a standard incorporating the Chi-Rho.

So, Mee-maw, long before your grandson became a Greek scholar, you were using ancient Greek in your Christmas cards. Merry X-mas, everyone!

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