Last updateFri, 02 Jan 2015 5pm

Yuletide is in full swing: Why spell it ‘xmas’? When was Jesus born?

While many in the United States are doing a little better this winter than last, others are still feeling the economic crimp caused initially by the 2008 Great Recession. A significant portion of the United States and Mexico are on thin consumer rations.

Such people may have to fall back to taking joy in the elementary miracles of being alive and well and being able to take part in the festivities, whether modest or otherwise.

For the those who not-too-long-ago were in the ranks of the upwardly mobile, Christmas tended to be perceived in purely economic terms, with plastic as their key to existence.

For other people terms are also confusing. For instance, despite what a great number of people think, Xmas isn’t some slipshod wordsmith’s in-a-hurry shorthand of Christmas.

It like a ton of yuletide vocabulary we’ve inherited, has ancient roots. Xmas derives from the Greek word “Christos.” And certainly it’s as legitimate as the old English words “Cristes Maesse,” from which developed the term “Christ’s Mass” which later generations mashed together to form “Christmas” — undoubtedly out of true laziness. It is also clear that few of the millions whooping it up on Christmas — or Xmas — celebrate Christ’s Mass.

But beyond demonstrating the amount of harm people armed with tiny pieces of inscribed plastic can do to themselves, and the many terms that exist to describe the season, this holiday presents a number of edifying twists of history.

Christ’s birth was not among the Christian Church’s first festivals. Early Christians were more interested in Christ’s death than celebrating his birth. That may have been because few of them could agree when he had been born. Early candidates were sometime in September, January 6, November 17 ... and December 25.

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Mystery, magic and horror

And since the time of Bethlehem, when the ox and the ass knelt with the shepherds at the manger, the Magi, those magicians and wise men from the East, Christmas has been a time of awesome mystery and magic. And horror has always gone with the holy, as all religions tell us in great, often hair-raising detail. Certainly the Wise Men knew this when they brought the new born babe, the gift of myrrh, a prime burial spice, from the saddle bags their camels bore.

Decades before Jacob Marley scared the greed out of Scrooge — and the joy of Christmas into him — the English-reading public was familiar with holiday-time ghosts, chillingly described spirits that haunted the pages of popular Christmas annuals and “special gift books.”

These were expensive and lavishly illustrated for the most part, and were a Pandora’s box of scary wraiths. Sherlock Holmes made his very first appearance — a story called “A Study in Scarlet” — in Beeton’s 1887 Christmas annual. Arthur Conan Doyle said the story’s title referred to “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life.”

We are, all of us, familiar with Xmas season ghosts. For what are those visions we recall each year of Christmases past but ghosts from our youth? That ancient sled with a splintered slat, peeling paint and rusted runners buried in the dust and spiderwebs of some distant attic, perhaps real, perhaps the attic of the mind; the beautiful doll, whose perfect cheeks have faded a bit, whose rounded limbs have thinned some; the Lionel train that churns, clicketing, around a  rusted oval of tiny rails, its wavering light peering faintly through the ghostly soot of time.

Those good ghosts of irreversibly festive Christmases are among the many blessings that have nothing at all to do with expensive plastic-sponsored Xmas spending blowouts. For whatever Christmas means, to anyone, it has to do, at its core, with a profound, marvelous and nourishing quality, not quantity — no matter how you spell it.