12/23/2013 10:02 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Words: The 'War on Xmas'?

Hundreds of years before the invention of cable television and around-the-clock outrage, Christ was being taken out of Christmas.

Except he wasn't. Let's explain.

In Ancient Greek, X was the first letter of "Christ." Constantine the Great had his army carry military standards into battle with the first two letters of the word -- Chi (X) and Rho (p). Coins also have been found with "Xp." That was 1,700 years ago.

Old English adopted that linguistic shorthand and added "-mas," a variation on "mass" or "masse."

"Xmas" dates to at least the mid-18th Century. (An earlier version, "X'temmas," goes back to 1551.)

Advertisements and greeting cards, no doubt taking advantage of the flexibility that comes with shorter words, have been using "Xmas" for more than a century.

Names, too, have used the abbreviation. Christina Aguilera's handle on Twitter? @xtina.
Here's the history of some other words yule, er, you'll see this season:

  • Yule and yuletide have their origin in a Northern European midwinter celebration that had nothing to do with Christianity. The yule log was a very large log that was burned on an open hearth while folks had a good time.
  • Colly Birds, which "The Twelve Days of Christmas" tells you to give four to your true love, is actually the Common Blackbird or Eurasian Blackbird. Colly has its origins in the Old English word col, now known as coal. So to colly something means to blacken it.
  • Philadelphia has a Mummers Parade each year on New Year's Day. The parade is huge -- it lasted for 11 hours in 2008 -- and features elaborate costumes. There's some debate about whether the word has its origins in the Middle English mum, Greek mommo (mask), German mummer (disguised person), or Old French momer (to act like a mime.)

Jeffrey Bruner is not actually a fussy librarian. He does, however, own an ebook recommendation website called The Fussy Librarian.