Ever since I was young I’ve had a “thing” about religion and spirituality. Although I often found myself disagreeing with various religious beliefs, or with ideas being presented as supposedly representative of various religions, I still had respect for the underlying concepts. Sometimes, I found that people would create religions not to help others, but to help themselves—generally to power, money, and/or sex. I didn’t like what they were doing. I felt they were harming others by mocking religions or spiritual paths.
I still feel this way.
And that brings me to Xmas.
When I was old enough to understand that Xmas was an abbreviation for Christmas, I felt there was something wrong with it. Even though I didn’t believe in Christmas (except for the gifty part), I felt it was disrespectful to take Christ our of Christmas and replace it with an X.
I’m not the only one who believes this way. According to Wikipedia, evangelist Franklin Graham believes “Xmas” is wrong as does the author and news commentator Roland S. Martin, who said:
…for us as Christians, this is one of the most holy of the holidays, the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. And for people to take Christ out of Christmas. They’re happy to say merry Xmas. Let’s just take Jesus out. And really, I think, a war against the name of Jesus Christ.
Today, some news commentators claim there is a “war on Christmas.” In examining the proof for this claim, I find it to be not just false, but amazingly false. However, the seeming disrespect of having X replace the title Christ in Xmas is plain and obvious. It looked bad to me. In fact, how did the Latin letter “X,” pronounced “eks,” come to replace the title “Christ” at all? Not only did it feel wrong to me, it made no sense. So, being pre-internet, I went to the library and did some research.
It turns out that the X only looks like the Latin letter pronounced “eks.” In actuality, it’s the Greek letter “Chi,” (pronounced “kai”), the first sound of the title “Christ.” The use of “Xmas” is at least 1,000 years old. In English it has been respectfully used in writing by authors such as Lewis Carroll, Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, and U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
But the use of the X as an abbreviation for Christ goes back much further. It was combined with the Greek letter Rho, which has the shape of a “P,” as symbolic of the title Christ. When pushed together, they form the labarum or Chi-Rho:
The labarum was used in many ancient Christian icons and symbols to represent Christ. It still is used this way in some Christian traditions. It supposedly goes back to the vision of Emperor Constantine as the sign, given to him in a dream vision, under which he conquered his opponents and turned Pagan Rome into a Christian state.
And earlier than that, the X was used by early, underground Christians as a secret sign of identity, similar to the way they used the fish emblem:
And then, along came French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He was a founder of the school of literary criticism called deconstruction. One of the concepts of this school of criticism is that the original concept of the author doesn’t matter. The meaning of something should be based on what we know today.
If you read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain with today’s mentality, you are likely to see it as racist. However, at the time it was written it was enlightened and anti-racist. It’s a valuable book to look at today for the story, the writing style (especially the dialog), and for understanding what was racist then and how our thinking has changed since it was published. But because some people only look at it from the attitudes of today, because they ignore history and the author’s intent, some public libraries have banned it and some high schools have abandoned its use.
And What Does This Have to Do with Magick?
Aleister Crowley was definitely sexist, racist, and and anti-semitic…when you look at him from a distance of more than sixty years after his death. For his time and society, he was just the opposite. Many of his attitudes were in opposition to the terrible sexism, racism, and anti-semitism of the upper-class British culture into which he was born. So there is a link, here, to one of the most important 20th century magicians. But there is more to it than this, and I need to begin with an explanation about my own attitudes.
Often, people write me and ask if they can change a particular ritual. I like to point out that magick is (or should be!) an experimental science. Try the change out. If it works, use it. If it doesn’t work, use the traditional method.
I’m in favor of change if there’s a good reason for it!
I’m not a luddite who is simply against any change. But the fact is, rituals become traditional because they work. The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram (LBRP) was created by the founders of the Golden Dawn but based on ancient Kabalistic concepts. As proof of its strength, when people try to “improve” it they basically just change a few words or actions. In The Book of the Law, Crowley was told to “cast away” all of the old rituals because they were “black.” But he follows the format of the LBRP with his Thelemic replacement ritual, the Star Ruby. To my mind, that’s not “casting away” so much as giving it a bit of a nudge.
But there’s a difference between what Crowley did with the Star Ruby and what some people do with their “improvements” to Golden Dawn rituals. By the time Crowley wrote the Star Ruby he was an expert occultist. He knew the purpose for each of his changes. Some of the changes I’ve seen to versions of the LBRP have clearly been written by people who didn’t know what they were doing.
I am in favor of change in rituals if the people making the change know what they are doing and if there is a legitimate and mystical reason for the change. However, should the reason simply be because a ritual has been deconstructed?
One of my favorite passages in a Golden Dawn ritual is the honoring of the Divine. It reads like this:
Holy art Thou Lord of the Universe
Holy art Thou whom Nature has not formed,
Holy art Thou the vast and the Mighty One
Lord of the Light and of the Darkness.
Some people read this and their modern-day sexist buzzers go off. “Lord of the Universe?” That’s sexist. How can the ruler of the universe only be a male “lord?” As a result, some people have changed this first line to read “Ruler of the Universe” or “Lord and Lady of the Universe” as this takes into account both genders. It balances this elegant evocation of the Divine. Doesn’t it?
Well, for people who are only looking at it superficially, yes. It makes perfect sense. But the truth is, there’s something deeper to it.
“Lord of the Universe” is not simply a title of a male entity. Remember, the rituals are drawn from the Kabalah, and we have to look at the original language of the Kabalah to understand it. The term “Lord of the Universe” is an English translation of the Hebrew, “Adon Olam.” In the medieval Kabalistic book, Sh’nei Luchot Habrit, it says that the value via gematria of Adon Olam is the same as ain sof, making the two terms equal. Ain sof, meaning “without limit” is one of the titles of the the Godhead, one of the three levels of “negative existence” that gave rise to the Tree of Life. [I discuss this concept in Modern Magick.]
Ruler of the Universe is not the same.
Lord and Lady of the Universe is not the same.
I’m not against change; I’m in favor of it. Spiritual movements that do not evolve end up devolving into tired husks of their former beauty. They’re highly liable to turn into nothing but personality cults devoid of the spirituality from which they were birthed. But change for the sake of change is rarely of value. It’s important to fully understand the purpose of the valid original in order to make it an even better new form.
Otherwise, you’re just taking the X out of Xmas.