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There’s no great Xmas conspiracy

December, 2010

Some years ago I read an article in which the writer railed against “the Xmas vulgarization and the creeping secularization it represented.” This exercised writer also believed that Xmas was a commercial conspiracy to expel “Christ” from Christmas.

Not so. Actually, Xmas is a relic of ancient Greek, in which “X” is the first letter of Xristos. By 1100, the word Christianity had been rendered as “Xianity.” Xmas is first recorded in 1551 and might have been popularized by penny-pinching engravers for whom the five fewer letters lowered costs.

Also, many people were under the false impression that the “X” represented the cross of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. But whereas early Christians had understood that the term merely was Greek for “Christ’s mass,” later Christians, unfamiliar with the Greek reference, mistook the X as a sign of disrespect and an attempt by the ungodly to rid Christmas of its core meaning.

While Xmas might not be taking Christ out of Christmas, one of the theories about the origin of mistletoe definitely takes the romance out of kissing under this shrub. According to some authorities, “mistletoe” derives from the Old English word mistiltan; tan meaning “twig” and mistil meaning “dung.” It seems that in days of yore, people believed mistletoe shoots sprang from bird droppings.

Two centuries before Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. It was also believed that this plant had special healing powers. In 1866, in Treasure of Botany, John Lindley and Thomas Moore wrote that “mistletoe … had such repute for helping in the diseases incidental to infirmity and old age that it was called Lignum Sanctae Crucis, “wood of the Holy Cross.”

It was believed that mistletoe was a cure-all for everything from hoof and mouth disease to syphilis and that it rendered women barren and oxen fertile. Kissing under the mistletoe is likewise a pre-Christian ritual. In his book Word Play, Robertson Cochrane relates: “During the pagan yuletide, various liberties were permitted people who … contrived to be situated under a sprig hung from the ceiling. … After every hanky or panky a berry was plucked, and when they were all gone, that was the buss terminal.”

The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins and suggested replacing the heathen shrub with holly.

More perplexing, however, is the origin of a beverage you might drink while canoodling under the mistletoe. I refer, of course, to eggnog and specifically to its second syllable. By the late 17th century, the word nog was used in eastern England to refer to strong beer. One theory claims that nog was a shortening of noggin, referring to a small mug or a small drink of spirits; another possibility has the word coming from the Scottish term nugg or nugged ale, which referred to ale warmed with a hot poker. One folk etymology has the term being a shortening of “egg and grog.” Although this theory sounds eminently reasonable, there is not a shred of evidence to support it.

Despite the lively images suggested by the term Boxing Day, the term has nothing to do with the pugilistic urge to punch out some obnoxious relative after Christmas; nor does the holiday have anything to do with disposing of the mountain of cardboard boxes by recycling them or returning them to a store. Instead,the OED explains that it is “observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box.” Boxing Day served to entrench Britain’s rigid class system. Whereas gifts among equals were exchanged on or before Christmas Day, beneficence to those lower on society’s totem pole occurred only after Christmas.

This all goes to show that we have made some social progress in the last 200 years as those workers lucky enough to receive a Christmas bonus generally receive it before the holiday.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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