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Monday, November 21, 2016

Chi Rho: Christ Never Left Christmas

I've been a fan of symbols, logos, pictograms, and sundry glyphs throughout history. It's hard for me to say just when that fascination set in. Perhaps it was how quickly I learned to recognize and write my alphabet. Or maybe it was the realization that some symbols have fixed meanings and some are a bit more fluid. We are surrounded by them. Everywhere. And I think I recognized that early on. I certainly wanted to know, much to the frustration of my poor exhausted dad, what it all meant. What really cemented the intrigue, I think, was my sixth grade religion class. I think so because I have been working on logos for the holiday.

In truth, I am kinda peeved that so many "Put Christ back in Christmas" Christians have no idea that he never really left. So as I was preparing the counterpoints to the bouts of "It's Merry Christmas not Happy Holidays" garbage that are about to schmear my facebook page. Being peeved led to a retort. In the process of the retort I realized that the origins of my glyph glee had to have been my religion class. Specifically the discussion about THIS particular glyph.

This is the Chi Rho. It is one of the earliest symbols associated with Christ. It is as significant as the ichthys fish as it was also a sign meant to +protect early Christians from Roman persecution. The glyph is composed of two Greek letters which are superimposed over one another. The Chi, the X, and the P looking letter Rho. They are the first two letters in the Greek word KHRistos. Which is the word Christ.

I read somewhere long, long ago that the Eastern Orthodox churches prefer this reference of Christ as it resembles, somewhat, the caduceus, the symbol of medicine. The Greek Orthodox church and the Byzantines tended to view Christ almost exclusively as a Healer and a Shepard rather than the King of Kings that so many Western churches envision. To them, this would have been the most natural expression of Christ in the written form. And for a long while, the CHI RHO +mas was the preferred decorative form. Imagine how striking this symbol would have been an illuminated manuscript. So much addition symbolism can be assigned this form. The X very literally is a cross. The P very well might be seen as Christ on that cross. The P shares the shape of a shepard's crook, which if the loop is left open a bit on the bottom then the case is made.

The Chi Rho is beautiful as it is rich in heritage. Handwritten manuscripts lend themselves well to such a dramatic, non alphabetical glyph. And this symbol was used well into the Victorian era in what printers would call the display; a headline, the larger advert writing across the top of whole pages or ads. As print media became more cost conscious and the spacing restrictions for large volume printing became something of an issue, there needed to be a way to modify the symbol.

I could bore you with a lot of jargon but I won't. Just look at this line of print. The r,i,n,o and w are a standard height. This is called the x-height. the letters with stems that rise above are called ascenders and the letters with stems and bowls that dip below the writing line are called descenders. The Rho is most definitely ascending. And it gets in the way of making print in newspapers and magazines standard. So, having used the chi rho initially to save type (when it was all made from cast iron on teeny tiny little woodblocks) every time one printed Christmas, the chi rho was used. And then, to make things even easier the chi rho was simplified so that Xmas could be written easier.

And of course, because poster makers and typographers, printers and graphic designers love LOVE love anything new, avante garde or just a bit quirky X-mas became the norm in packaging and Greeting cards. For a very long time in America everyone knew what this meant. I don't know when and I don't know why people got the idea that there was a war on Christmas and the various greetings used through out the year became targets. All I can say is that public school kids don't get taught religious history and Catholic school kids have short memories.

This is SIXTH GRADE stuff!!!!!! This is stuff that we should all know about growing up. This is stuff that we should know so that we don't sound like uneducated asshats. I don't know who decided that there was a war on Christmas. I will guess, most likely correctly, that it was some Christian zealot with a lot of time and a little brain power. Now every fool that goes about with "Merry Xmas" on his greeting card is a candidate for a lynching. How very sad. No one is attacking the holiday. No one took Christ out of Christmas. But, someone did take the brains out of most of the people who have been caught up in the fever of this non-issue.

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