When you see "Xmas" instead of "Christmas," what do you think? Are you one of the many people who has been persuaded that this is an affront to Christianity started by a cabal of heathens? Maybe you've lamented how secular December 25th has become and then declared with zeal, "Let's keep the Christ in Christmas!"
There's just one problem: Heathens didn't take the Christ out of Christmas. In fact, the opposite is true. As Daven Hiskey writes for Today I Found Out:
It turns out 'Xmas' is not a non-religious version of 'Christmas.' The 'X' is actually indicating the Greek letter 'Chi,' which is short for the Greek [Christos], meaning 'Christ.' So 'Xmas' and 'Christmas' are equivalent in every way except their lettering.Who started it? According to Hiskey, it was "a very popular practice, particularly with religious scribes" from a millennium ago. This makes sense since one of the earliest Christian symbols was an abbreviation/combination of the first two Greek letters of Christos known as the Chi Rho (shown below). Now you know!
So why do people believe the 'heathens' myth? There are several persuasive elements to the story we can explore.
First, it fits a narrative created by religious persuaders to stir the passions of God-fearing folks. In their view, unbelievers are not just your ordinary citizen next door, they're part of a secret conspiracy to undermine the religious foundations of our nation.
Not helping matters are all the high-profile actions of certain atheist organizations. The only time many Christians hear or think about those of no faith is when some group purporting to represent them is protesting nativities or suing to remove the Ten Commandments from public places. This forms a lasting impression that readily comes to mind when a myth like the above is shared. Thanks to behavioral economics (i.e. Kahneman & Tversky), we have a name for this phenomenon: the "availability heuristic." When examples in support of a myth’s premise spring readily to mind, we will tend to overweight those examples and fail to think about counter-examples. The mind thinks, "Heathens are just the sort of people to do that kind of thing because of that protest and that other lawsuit I remember reading about.”
Finally, there's the psychology of myth-spreading in general. Think about so-called "urban legends" and how many people you know believe them. There are several reasons, but the most basic is that they spread via people we know and trust. In other words, they utilize Cialdini's sixth principle of persuasion (consensus aka social proof).
Let's say you go to church on Sundays. If several of your fellow parishioners, perhaps even the pastor himself, have used "Xmas" to help sermonize about "keeping the Christ in Christmas," that's all the proof a lazy mind needs to conclude that Grinch-like heathens are trying to steal the very letters from "Christmas."