I was speaking with a colleague, Fred, who is an atheist, and he told me that he preferred to use Xmas on his Christmas cards rather than Christmas. This, he said, would not give offence to people who did not accept the entire Christian association with Christmas. Never mind the obvious, that there is no Christmas without Christianity. This reaction to Xmas is a common mistake, and one that we ourselves can easily fall into. I pointed out to him that the X in Xmas means Christ, and it is not an X but the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in Christ’s name. The use of the symbol X for Christ originates in the early Church, when advertising your Christianity meant martyrdom. Not that the early Christians would not willingly be martyrs, but there is an obligation to avoid this sacrifice if possible. The use of Xmas is filled with sacred imagery, when Christians celebrated Christmas in secret during the apostolic age, an age of ardent faith.
For us in Canada, with so many traditional Christmas practices coming from the British Isles, this idea of celebrating Christmas in secret has a more recent history. During the age of Cromwell, the Puritans would put Catholics to death; to even be accused of being a Catholic was to forfeit your right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. The use of a symbol such as Xmas under these circumstances carries these historic meanings, especially for those of us of Irish, Scottish, or English background. So I congratulated my atheist friend on his traditionalism, in adopting this more reverent, deeply symbolic and Christian form of identifying this important day on his Xmas cards.
I asked him if he ever used the words good bye. He had. I then asked if he was being a hypocrite intentionally or simply out of ignorance. “Good bye,” I explained, “is a contraction of the words God be with ye, or God b’ye. This seems pretty religious to me. Similarly, our practice of honouring the pagan gods Woden, Thor, and Frida, among others, setting aside one day of the week for them, not to mention the gods of the moon and the sun. Janus, Mars, and the two Caesars who would be gods, the calendar is filled with religion, and every day atheists piously say “God be with you” to each other.
Of course, he did not want to follow this line of argument, so he changed the approach and began discussing the place of religion in the public domain. Fred argued that as a secular society we should not have overtly religious holidays or symbols. He cited as an example “the ubiquitous use of the cross on graves at the side of the road or on public memorials for the dead. Not everyone is a Christian. Must we always see crosses when we drive?”
“Yes, you must, whether you like it or not,” I answered him.
“There is a society of atheists who are suing municipalities to get them to remove all public crosses, you know.”
“Rather a hard task, I would think, since crosses hold up the telephone lines” I said, as I pointed out the row of wooden crosses extending down both sides of the street, carrying telephone and electric wires. “What about them; can you describe a more secular type of telephone pole?” My friend grew despondent and we walked along in silence for a while. But, not for long, for like all good atheists, he could not stop talking about religion.
“Well, at least we in Canada are not like those Americans, who have In God We Trust on their money. Their country is filled with religious symbols. That is crazy, and should not be tolerated,” he countered, thinking he had me. Non sequitors always give such hope to sloppy thinkers.
I pulled out a quarter from my pocket and read the words, CANADA 2003 25 cents, and on the other side, Elizabeth II D. G. Regina. “That means Deo Gratias Regina, or in English, queen by the grace of God. I take it you know that Elizabeth is more or less the Anglican Pope” I said inaccurately. “I take it you must be a republican then, and prefer the American model of separation of Church and State.”
We continued on in silence.
“Well, good bye Dave, it has been interesting,” Fred said as he turned to go.
“Thanks Fred! I appreciate that, and may the good God be with you, too. And happy tenth day of Christmas to you! Or if you prefer, happy Thor’s-day.”