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I could tell two things about the woman from the voicemail I received: she was elderly, and she was angry.

Her bone to pick centered around a column I had written, where, in the headline, “Xmas” was used instead of “Christmas.”

“Let’s keep the Christ in Christmas,” she said in a sharp, indignant tone before slamming the phone down.

This was at least 15 years ago, when I was writing a weekly column for a newspaper in Kentucky. (If I recall, that particular column didn’t have much to do with Christmas itself, but was a lighter take on the stresses of holiday shopping.) Like many angry callers, the woman did not leave a name or a phone number. Oh, to be able to lash out and remain anonymous; such a profile in courage.

I really wish she had left a phone number, because there were some things I wanted to (calmly) explain to her, hoping she’d be a bit wiser from the conversation and, who knows, maybe I would, too.

My regular opinion piece for that paper was a column in both a figurative and literal sense. The latter meant it took up one column inch on the left side of the page, and ran vertically down to the bottom. There was no space for long words in headlines, and even though my suggested header contained “Christmas,” it was changed by a copy editor to “Xmas” so it would fit. That’s the practical side of it.

That particular headline was written by a former priest. No joke. The priest-to-copy editor career route isn’t a crowded one, as far as I know, but before any hasty conclusions are reached I feel like I should point out he left the church because he wanted to get married, which he did.

I probably wouldn’t have explained all of that to the angry caller. Instead, I would’ve told her the copy editor didn’t choose “Xmas” as a throwaway abbreviation.

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Now, I’m sure it will come to a great shock to all that I am no learned scholar of Christianity or any other religion. (Gasp!) However, even I knew why he had used that particular abbreviation, and a lot of you probably do, too. It’s because “Xmas” does keep the “Christ” in Christmas.

Somewhere around 1,700 to 2,000 years before all of the yammering about a “War on Christmas” or people becoming incensed at hearing “Happy Holidays,” the “X” was of particular significance to a then-fledgling religion. In fact, it can still be found in Christian iconography today across many denominations. The criss-cross pattern was formed by combining the Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of the word “Christ” as spelled in that language.

While historical accounts of usage vary, many claim the abbreviated symbol was a secret sign in plain sight early Christians would recognize back in a time when they were persecuted for their beliefs and could pay with their lives. That’s quite a contrast to today’s outrage paired with what seems like a weird desire to claim persecution of the cultural sort. I’m coming up empty on examples of people in the U.S. fed to lions for attending a Christian church.

More common usage of some form of the abbreviation “Xmas” can be traced all the way back to the 1500s in England. It only fell out of favor in this country when right wing media outlets began their cultural crusade, as even prominent evangelicals, ignorant of their own religion’s history, said the abbreviation “takes Christ out of Christmas.”

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of talking heads, having few real items of consequence to discuss, finding a non-issue and rattling the hornet’s nest. Sadly, ranting and raving about an imaginary problem long enough can eventually make it real, at least to a certain contingent. I received that call more than a decade ago, and this phantom perception of a war against a holiday celebrated by a majority of Americans has only gotten worse.

Whatever the meaning of Christmas to those who celebrate it — be it in a spiritual sense, a commercial sense or, as it is with many of us, some combination of the two — it’s supposed to be a time of peace and joy for everyone.

The only anxiety and anger should come from unrealistic expectations coupled with the pressure cooker of having so many family members under one roof. I don’t believe there’s a battle against Christmas in this country, but you could convince me there’s a Ghost of Holiday Tension, who emerges on Thanksgiving and stays through the New Year.

So, I humbly suggest we all relax while we can, and save that rage for appropriate release when someone at the dinner table on Saturday says something like “Don’t take this personally, but you never do anything right.”

Ben Fields is the opinion editor. He is currently working from home. He can be reached at Follow @BenFieldsWV on Twitter.

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