Politics & Policy


12 things to know about Xmas, including where the "X" in Xmas comes from.

Here’s a Christmas Q&A, on random subjects of varying importance. If it’s Simpsons quotes you desire, then scroll to the bottom immediately.

Why is Christmas on December 25?

The Bible provides no clear indication of the time of year when Jesus was born. Some sketchy evidence points toward the spring, but even general season is strongly disputed. In the 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria proposed May 20 for the birthday of Christ. The first reference its celebration on December 25 comes from a 4th-century Roman document, suggesting that the tradition was established around this time. According to one theory, Christians appropriated the Roman custom of commemorating the winter solstice–the birthday of the sun–on December 25. Another theory rejects this view and subscribes to the idea that the conception of Jesus took place on the same day of the year as His death. Because His death is often said to have taken place on March 25, his birthday presumably would follow this date by exactly nine months.

Who was the real St. Nick?

St. Nicholas was bishop of Myra, in Turkey, in the 4th century. That’s about the only thing that can be said of him with any degree of certainty. The rest is legend, including an old story about how he saved three girls from prostitution by providing them with marriage dowries–he threw three bags of gold into their window at night. He is the patron saint of children, and in Holland there was a tradition of giving gifts to kids on his feast day of December 6. In Dutch, his name is Sinte Klaas. It seems that Dutch Protestants brought this practice to the New World, combined it with Nordic legends about a magician who gave presents to nice children but none to the naughty ones, and gave birth to the modern tradition of Santa Claus.

How did Christmas become Xmas?

It’s Greek to us–literally. The Greek word for Christ is Xristos. That’s where the X in Xmas comes from. There’s a Christian website called www.xristos.com. Here’s what it says:

Xristos is a transliteration of the New Testament Greek word for Christ “criston.” The Greek letter Chi ‘c’ was retained to insure a connection to the roots and original texts, as well as visually represent the centrality of the cross in all. The visual symbol Chi-ro is also employed at various places by Xristos, recalling one of the earliest practices of the Christian community.

So referring to Christmas as Xmas is no sign of disrespect, as many people believe. But it helps to know its origins.

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Would you believe it’s Jupiter? That’s what one astronomer thinks. I find his theory plausible, and wrote about for NRO two years ago here.

When did Christmas come to America?

The settlers at Jamestown probably celebrated Christmas in 1607. The pilgrims, by contrast, weren’t too big on the holiday. There were even laws against it in New England. The Christmas tree has its roots in Germany, and sometimes it is said that Hessian soldiers brought the tradition here during the American Revolution. Others credit the Moravians in Pennsylvania in the early part of the 19th century. President Franklin Pierce put up the first White House Christmas tree, in 1856. Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870.

What’s the deal with poinsettias?

They’re named after Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He was a part-time horticulturalist and became interested in many plants native to Mexico, including the so-called Christmas Eve flower. It was later renamed in his honor. There is also a Poinsett State Park in South Carolina. Bonus trivia: The red parts of a poinsettia are leaves, not flower petals. The flower is actually small and yellow. But most people think those big red leaves are the flower.

How did the tradition of sending Christmas cards begin?

Christmas cards are dated to 1843, when Sir Henry Cole decided it would take too long to handwrite the hundreds of Christmas notes he planned to send. So he had a thousand cards printed. They featured artwork by John Calcott Horsley. What started out as a timesaver, of course, now consumes huge amounts of time among those who continue to send out cards. Americans exchange two billion Christmas cards per year, according to one estimate.

Did anything else noteworthy happen at Christmastime in 1843?

Why, yes! Charles Dickens published his short novel, A Christmas Carol–”the most perfect work Dickens ever wrote,” according to the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens. Read more about Dickens and his most famous book here.

The “Christmas season,” as defined by retailers, seems to begin earlier every year. When will it finally end?

That’s the wrong question. Christmas is best understood as a beginning rather than an ending. In one old tradition, children didn’t receive all their gifts on the 25th–their goodies were handed out over the following 12 days (the famous “12 days of Christmas”), culminating with the Epiphany celebration on January 6.

What did J.R.R. Tolkien have to say about all this?

I knew you’d ask. Tolkien loved Christmas. He wrote a series of letters from Father Christmas to his children–they are, of course, now collected in a book. And if you haven’t checked Appendix B in The Return of the King lately, do it now. That’s where we learn what happened on December 25 in the year 3019 of the Third Age: “The Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk.” In other words, the incident that sets in motion the critical events of the entire Lord of the Rings saga takes place on Christmas Day. A momentous beginning indeed. The only thing missing is Gandalf in a Santa suit.

Can you make a cool Simpsons reference?

On one show, a sign outside a store reads: “In Honor of the Birth of Our Savior, Try-N-Save is Open All Day Christmas.”

Can you do better that that?

Bart: “Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of this day–the birth of Santa?”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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