21 December 2014

Keeping the X in Xmas

by Leigh Lundin

When I was a kid, a controversy arose regarding the abbreviation of Christmas as Xmas. Many argued it was disrespectful or downright sacrilegious.

This issue surfaced again in college. With large numbers of scholars around, the consensus turned out differently. Those who studied history and Greek deemed the Χ dated back to the earliest days of Christianity, that the Greek letter chi was used among the sect to identify themselves. Even illiterate adherents could recognize and use the letter Χ, the first letter of Χριστός ➟ Xristos ➟ Krīstós ➟ Chrīstós ➟ Christ.

So not only is Xmas not blasphemous, it’s actually blessed. One of our favorite web sites, Grammerly, discusses it further.

The ‘i’s have it

poinsettia v poinsetta

Grammerly, which brings us the Ghost of Future Perfect Subjunctive (we understand even if Scrooge doesn't) is fun and educational for writers and readers, offering use and spelling snippets often in the form of graphics and fan contributions. The above represents an example of poinsettia versus poinsetta. The latter is flagged as an error both by my word processor but also by the Oxford Dictionary. I might add I was taught the red peppers in Spanish olives are pimientos, not pimentos. However, some people distinguish pimiento as the fruit and pimento as the plant itself.
Fox 35 Xmas weirdness

Danny Boy

Fox News has published a list of 35 Christmas practices from around the world. (See list at right.)

Far be it from me to suggest Fox News might be anything less than truthful (oh, God, my eyeballs are rolling uncontrollably), but I spent Christmas in South Africa and didn’t come across Numbers 1 or 34. I never encountered a single deep-fried moth nor an angry izigebengu (bad guy) named Danny.

Maybe they were fresh out of moth larvae, or possibly they were hiding in some township somewhere deep in tribal lands… We're awaiting confirmation from our South African correspondent.

Stop Presses!
Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Our African correspondent reports: “The Emperor Moth caterpillars, referred to here as the Mopane worm (moh-pah-nee), are a southern African delicacy, not traditionally Zulu, more a staple in Zimbabwe and northern SA. They are huge, as long as one's hand. Tried dried crispy in Zim— not too bad. The other offering of soft and squidgy made me gag – EEEUW!

As for the Danny story — never heard of it. Certainly not an English tale and Danny is not an African name. If there’s any substance to it, my guess is possibly Afrikaans / Dutch - from Daanie (pronounced Dah-nee) diminutive of Daniel.”

The Fox is at the door

Fox contends annually that a ‘War against Christmas’ is about to end the holiday any time now. As I’ve written earlier, Christmas for my family has traditionally been not merely ecumenical, but all inclusive and non-proselytizing. That’s worked pretty well. But yeah, there’s always someone who found coal in their stockings and Fox manages to track them down. Here’s an example from a couple of years ago.

Black Christmas

Here in Florida, when the State House allowed Christmas presentations, the courts held that any ‘religious’ organization could erect Christmas displays, even Satanists, bless their hearts. However, Fox chose to focus on the, er, Festivus pole, as highlighted by Jon Stewart. And then they go on to snivel about Santa and being white. They have no problem with a green Grinch? Listen folks, when I was a kid, my parents took us to black churches and we learned young that Father Christmas is whatever folks need him to be. That's the magic of the season.

White Christmas

Earlier this month, I encountered an Australian doo-wop group called Human Nature, now appearing in that soul of Christendom, Las Vegas. They’ve released a Christmas album, which is bleedin’ good. Their cover of White Christmas does Bing Cosby proud.

Here’s the live version if you have Facebook and audio-only from YouTube.

May your Chanukah wrap up wonderfully and your twelve days of Christmas be merry and bright.


  1. All good holiday wishes, but lets leave out that extra i in poinsetta- it's hard enough to spell as it is.

  2. Laff! Janet, I'm with you.
    Leigh, I found that fascinating about X. A lot of fuss about nothing, after all, it seems.
    Great post.

  3. Leigh, I'm sitting by my poinsettia, eating pimiento cheese and crackers.

  4. Good morning, Janice. I'll ask Santa to deliver extra 'i's. He should have no problem: a lot of uncapitalized 'i's are floating around the internet and text messages.

    Melodie, I rather like that there's no wrong way. Now if we can persuade people the season doesn't start until December…

    Good for you, Fran! I do like a well-made pimiento cheese.

    Nearby Apopka, Florida is known for growing many of the poinsettias displayed throughout North America. According to growers, they use a trick to getting poinsettias to turn red, based on the shorter number of daylight hours.

  5. Like the part about the X.

    I leave to my spell checker to spell poinsettia because it rejects “poinsetta.”

  6. That's true, Louis. I can barely spell anything thanks to spell checkers. Someday we may see a spelling checker bee.

    Kind of ironic, if I spell poinsettia wrong, it gets a red decoration, but if I spell it right, no decoration at all.

  7. I loved this, Leigh! And thanks to Velma (I think?) for posting the video link to the terrific doo-wop group on her FB page!

    Spelling isn't all of it, either. (OK, I changed direction there kind of fast. Keep up, keep up.) When my son was in the first grade, we moved from California to South Carolina and he encountered this mysterious and wonderful sandwich stuff called "banana cheese." I tried to find it in the stores without success until one day he spotted it in a plastic box in the dairy case and seized it with a cry a triumph. I read the label -- "pimento cheese" -- factored in the SC accent, and realized .... "banana" cheese. :-)

    Merry Christmas and (today) Happy Solstice!!! Thanks for a great year of posts!

  8. Anon, thank you for the compliments and thanks for the banana cheese story. (Those yellow Minions would love it.) Accents are wonderful things.

    I'll pass your best wishes on to Velma and we shall see you in the new year!

  9. Sorry, Fox News, but my Greek grandmother, who was full of omens, portents, and various folklore, never once mentioned the dreaded Kallikantzaroi. Maybe they just weren't around her part of Greece. On the other hand, I was cheerfully informed (NOT at Christmas time) that Greece was the source for all vampire legends, and vampires were the reason we put tombstones on graves, so the dead can't get out. Happy Ho-Hos indeed!

  10. Like Louis, am pleased to learn about the X.

    Should you wish to include something new on the Christmas menu, for your delectation, an illustrated crash-course in Mopane Worm Preparation 101.

  11. --Fox News might be anything less than truthful (oh, God, my eyeballs are rolling uncontrollably)--

    ho ho. At least you’re funny about it. I think they see them selves as the protectors of Christmas… or Xmas. Have a good one.

  12. Many times an X marked the spot of a martyred Christian. In Biblical days--a red X. I learned this recently and. Remembered how. Inappropriate it was considered to spell Xmas. With it.
    Thank you for your columns and go go hos!
    Merry Christmas!
    I suspect a punctuation elf has settled in my phone. Wonder how it would spell poinsettia ? Ha!

  13. Eve, if people knew about Greek vampires, who would want to travel to Transylvania when they could bask in the Isles?

    ABA, thanks for the help! The preparation reminds me of a song my little brother used to sing:

    Nobody likes me.
    Everybody hates me.
      I could eat worms all day.
    Bite the heads off.
    Suck the guts out.
      Throw the skins away.

    Or, here’s another variation (with music):

    Nobody likes me.
    Everybody hates me.
      I think I'll go eat worms!
    Big fat juicy ones.
    Eensie weensy squeensy ones,
      See how they wiggle and squirm!
    I bite off the heads,
    and suck out the juice,
      And throw the skins away!
    Nobody knows
    how fat I grow,
      On worms three times a day!

  14. Anon #2, thank you.

    Claire, sorry you're having phone punctuation problems! I believe I've seen either a Germanic or Orthodox cross that contain an X superimposed over the cross itself (not that I can spot one when I google).

  15. Well, Leigh, I've long suspected that X marks the spot (and probably starts the name Zorro!). As for eating worms, the closest I've come was eating grubs in Ghana W. Africa. That was rough going until we managed to get the cook to bring us some of the spicy red sauce he used on the snake meat we usually ate for lunch. Then, the grubs were tasty. Yum!

    Thanks for the great lesson in derivation. I love derivation and lexicography -- was always a huge fan of Safire's "On Language" column.

  16. Dixon, those who advocate a paleo diet have no idea what they're asking for. My brain tells me worms and insects would be good, safe protein, but my stomach argues otherwise. One of my eccentric aunts once gave me a tin of fried grasshoppers for a silly Christmas present. I didn't sample them but my classmate, a doctor's son, did. Then he asked for more.


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