An Atheist Celebrates Xmas —er, the Solstice … Part 1

21st December, 2009 (cue background music: Paul Winter Consort)

Well, the “End of the Maya Calendar” is exactly three years away.  Roland Emmerich’s computer-generated-apocalypse-fantasy “2012” has swept through like a tsunami, and we are confronted, like it or not, with Christmas.  Luckily, I like Christmas music, or I would be forced into a hermitage for six weeks every year, away from shopping malls, television, radio, and Main Streets cheerfully blaring their music and bustling with cars sporting felt antlers.  Actually, that sounds like a capital idea. Bah, Humbug…. Except I really do like harmonizing with all those upbeat, major-key carols.

The politically-correct phrase “Holiday Season” was coined, ironically, by that epitome of conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence, the fashion industry.  This highly intelligent, articulate, and largely non-Christian population refers to itself, with supreme cynicism, as “the Schmatte trade”.  “Schmatte” is Yiddish for “rags”.  (Their Capital is 7th Avenue in Manhattan, not far from 34th Street, home of Macy’s, Gimbel’s and the eponymous “Miracle”.  If you haven’t seen the film with the 8-year-old Natalie Wood, sarcastic and cute as a button, do so.  We call it a Classic for good reason.)

But back to “Xmas”.  This abbreviation offends some Christians, who see it as “taking Christ out of Christmas”, but in fact Xmas was the original spelling of the word.  (For a brilliant example of this, Google-image the 8th-century Book of Kells.  Folio 34 is arguably the most famous masterpiece of Celtic art, in a book filled with extraordinary masterpieces.  The first words of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew, it begins “Xpi autem generatio”, “Christ was born in this way…”, Fig. 1 below)

It is only since the secularizing Renaissance that we have developed the habit of spelling out “Christ-mass” in full.  Ancient scribes, influenced by the Third Commandment, never wrote out the names of God completely.  They always abbreviated the Nomina Sacra, the Holy Names.  In Latin, this means Deus or Dei (“God” or “of God”) was abbreviated to DS. or DI.Dominus (“Lord”) was written DNS., and Spiritus Sanctus (“Holy Spirit”) was SPS. SCS. (The Early Medieval scribal convention for contraction usually consisted of a horizontal stroke above the abbreviated letters.  This gradually transformed into an apostrophe, or to a dot, indistinguishable from a period, at the end.)  And the Latin abbreviation for Iesus Christus is IHS. XPS. (Also IHU. XPI., Iesu Christi, “of Jesus Christ”, or IHM. XPM., Iesum Christum, “to Jesus Christ”, etc.)  The peculiar spelling is an echo of Greek, the original language of the New Testament.  The Greek letters H (eta), X (chi), and P (rho) are identical to Latin H, X, and P, and somehow the Greek abbreviation (which at the time looked like IHC XPC) migrated into Latin scribal practice.  (This linguistic migration mimics that of bicultural individuals, and the Spanglish we hear, here in the Border region between Tijuana and San Diego.)

Whatever the reasons, spelling the Latin “Christi” as Xpi, and English “Christmas” as Xmas, predates the fully-spelled-out words by over a thousand years.

(Using capital letters to indicate proper names is also a recent invention, coming into wide practice only in the 15th or 16th century.  In fact, the capital letters themselves were the only letterforms used in the early Christian era.  [Check out any Ancient Roman Inscription like we see on the Arch of Titus or the Trajan Column.]  Minuscules [“small letters”] slowly evolved out of Majuscules [“capital letters”] throughout the entire first millennium AD, and the two were never used together until about the eighth century.  It took several centuries more of scribal experimentation before we settled on our modern conventional Double Alphabet, with fairly specific roles for the two kinds of letters.)

(I know, I’m old-fashioned, I still use the old AD [Anno Domini “year of our Lord”] and BC [“Before Christ”] to denote dates, instead of the more-politically-correct CE and BCE [“Common Era” and “Before Common Era”].  Old habits die hard, even in an old atheist.

In future essays, I plan to tackle the extraordinarily-quirky history of the calendar itself… Or, rather, the calendars themselves, because we use at least seven —not counting the Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, Zodiacal, and, of course, the Maya Calendars.  For more on this,  see my website <>, and download Part IV – Appendix: Technicalities of the Calendars . And stay tuned….

XPI autem generatio

Fig. 1. Book of Kells, late 8th century AD/CE



An Atheist Celebrates Xmas —er, the Solstice … Part 1 — 3 Comments

  1. OK, what are the seven calendars? Or do you count year, month, day, day-of-week, etc. as separate calendars? I can come up with Civil, Julian Day (astronomy), and the two “Microsoft Excel” calendars which have Day One as 1/1/1900 and 1/1/1904. There is also a nanosecond counter deep in some operating systems (Unix is probably one of them) which has a zero point that coincides with the Julian Day (begins 1/1/4713 BCE) and requires (currently) 68 bits of a 128-bit accumulator. I think somebody else’s nsec accumulator does away with two bits by beginning in 1/1/1 CE.

    • This is a comment from another scientific mind at . “Polymath” is a name well-chosen, he’s an expert in many fields. The seven calendars I mentioned depend on what one counts… Since they were all invented independently, I count these as separate calendars:

      1. Day of the month, originally a 29- or 30-day lunar cycle (now fixed into the 12 months).
      2. Day of the week. (A very ancient 7-day cycle, named for the seven visible planets (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn). Most of these names survive in some form (For example, Thor’s Day: Thor, Norse god of lightning, was considered equivalent to Jupiter, Greek god of lightning.)
      3. Months of the year. The Romans originally simply numbered them, then later named them to honor gods and rulers (Mars got March, Julius Caesar got July, his nephew Augustus insisted that his month get as many days as his uncle’s which is why we have two adjacent 31-day months). Septem-, Octo-, Novem- and Decem- are still named for the Latin 7, 8, 9, and 10.
      4. Months of the year. (We use two such calendars). The Zodiacal months (Pisces, Aquarius, the Twins, et al.), which begin and end around the 21st of each month. Their edged are arranged to coincide with the Solstice and Equinox stations (December 21, March 21, June 21, and September 21).
      5. Our Year-count (2010 at this writing), invented by Dionysius Exiguus around 525 AD/CE. He miscalculated Christ’s birth by at least four years.
      6. Astronomers use Julian Day Numbers, invented by Joseph Justus Scaliger in 1583. He selected its beginning-point at 1 January 4713 BC, Greenwich noon. (by the Julian Calendar. Though a bit less accurate than the our Gregorian Calendar, Julian years are easier to calculate, with precisely 365.25 days. JDN’s count only days, so that poses no problem. And this calendar, though tied to the Earth’s daily rotation, is otherwise unattached to our solar system’s cycles.)
      7. By the Chinese Zodiac, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger (it starts February 14th). More complex versions of this 12-year cycle add the five elements (2010 is the Metal Tiger, 2011 is Wood Rabbit), making a 60-year cycle.
      8. The European year 2010 is the Chinese year 4707, again starting 14th February.
      9. February 14th is St. Valentine’s Day, December 21st is St. Lucia’s Day, etc. … Every day is dedicated to one or more Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Saints. In some conservative communities, children are still named for the day on which they were born.
      10. September 19, 2009 marked Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish Year 5770.
      11. December 18th was the first day of the Islamic Year 1431 (AH). Islamic years are precisely 12 moons, or 354.37 days long. Thus, 34 Christian years is roughly equal to 35 Islamic years.

      So, not counting religious or ethnic calendars, we only use six concurrent calendric cycles.
      But to show respect for my Chinese, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim friends, I have to include five more.
      If one includes the Celtic calendar, Surfer’s tide charts, and Fashion Year, the list will grow and grow… .

  2. “arguably the most famous masterpiece of Celtic art”
    suggest an alternative and find someone to argue with you