Oh, my! Today’s alphabet block actually has two letters on it, X and Y. X brings us Xmas and Y shows us Yule and yearning.
Several times we’ve seen words that are in foreign languages, Greek or Latin. Why are they important? Because our tradition as Christians comes from a time when Greek and Latin were major languages spoken across a wide area and by many people. If not their native tongue, Greek and Latin were the languages of those who traveled to different parts of the Roman Empire and the Middle East. They were the languages of commerce and conquest, but also languages in which Christianity grew. Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, was common in his part of the Middle East, but in Rome or Alexandria or Athens it would not have been understood. Much of our New Testament was written in Greek and even the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek and handed down to us. So during Advent we look at the gift of language and its place in our heritage.
That brings us to Xmas. Many Christians cringe when they see something with “Xmas” written on it. “You’ve taken Christ out of Christmas!” they exclaim, usually fairly loudly. But looking at history and at language, it can take on a whole different point of view. There is a letter in the Greek alphabet that is called chi, and pronounced like the sound of ch as in loch. The actual letter for chi is χ, our mysterious X. So what’s it doing in Xmas? For many years, it was considered cool to have a pin or a ring with a monogram on it, initials that stood for a person’s name. Centuries ago the church gave Jesus a monogram consisting of two letters, the X of chi and a Ρ (rho, sounding like r in rod) to stand for the first two letters of the title he was given, Christ. The symbol of chi and rho for Jesus’ monogram looks like a long-tailed P with an X centered on the bottom stroke of the P. It’s often seen in churches, as carvings, on hangings and paraments, vestments, and even on the burse that is placed on top of the veil for the chalice and paten as they wait to be filled for the Eucharist. So what does that have to do with Christmas? The church often used and uses shorthand just as we do, and in Greek, the chi (X) symbol would recall the title of Christ which shares the same initial sound. Coupled with the rho, the result is the sound CHR – sounding more familiar? So when people use Xmas, they aren’t necessarily being offensive and rubbing Christ out of Christmas; they may be returning to an earlier version of the church and referring to Christ by his monogram.
Around Christmas we often sing the carol “Deck the Halls.” In it there is a line that says, “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” but what are they talking about? Trolls? Those are either mythical characters or people who stir up trouble on the internet, right? In this case to troll is to sing with enthusiasm. But Yuletide carols? Yule was an ancient word for a period of time that somewhat corresponded to the period of midwinter. Later it was narrowed down to Christmas Day or what now corresponds with the Christmas season until Epiphany. Benjamin Britten used the term in his Ceremony of Carols in the piece “Wolcom Yole.” Now it is usually used to indicate a nostalgia what we think of as the way Christmas used to be celebrated in what the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore calls “. . . lavish food and secular jollity, situated in a largely invented ‘Merrie England*.’ ” It does serve to recall the past, even if a glorified fiction of that past.
In a sense, we have a yearning for things that make us feel warm and safe. We yearn for a time when life seemed uncomplicated. Perhaps that is why Yule conjures up images of music and dancing, feasting, games of charades and elaborate costumed tableaux in period books and movies. But beyond the yearning for those “Good Old Days,” which might not have really been all that good, we can also yearn for a home where we once lived or even a relationship that has been severed for some reason. Advent invites us to deepen the relationship we have with God or perhaps the one we have felt was lost. Perhaps now is the time to take the steps to change the yearning into reality.
It is almost Christmas. It’s time to mend fences instead of yearning for the ones we used to have. Whether we write it Xmas or Christmas, we keep Christ in it. That’s the important thing.