A few years back, I took a guided tour of the picturesque Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Positioned high atop a bluff, this cemetery offers—with more than a little irony—one of the best views of the city’s main attraction: the James River. As our tour group strolled along, I noticed a number of crosses and headstones engraved with a symbol that looked oddly like a dollar sign: capital-S with three vertical lines running through it. Curious to understand if there was a connection between this historic religious symbol and the symbol we use today for currency, I asked the tour guide about it.
This common gravestone insignia, he explained, is actually a symbol derived from the letters IHS. By laying the I and the H on top of the S, you effectively end up with an S overlaid by three vertical lines. And no, this apparently has no commonly accepted link to the US dollar sign, $.
The acronym IHS is called a Christogram, which according to the tour guide—and subsequently confirmed and expanded upon by Wikipedia—is “a combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ, traditionally used as a Christian symbol.”
So how, exactly, is IHS an abbreviation for Jesus Christ? Well, if you write JC’s name in Greek words, it is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. And if you morph that sigma sign, Σ, into an S, then you get IHS as the first three letters in the name Jesus Christ. It was also written ΙΗCΟΥC ΧΡΙCΤΟC at another time in history, so IHC also became a hit in some traditions. Alternatively, you can snag the first and last letters in each Greek word, and you get ICXC, another popular insignia.
Further, because people used to routinely mix up their I’s and J’s, some JHC and JHS acronyms have also floated around. This explains the origin of the mysterious middle initial that arises in the Lord’s name when one stubs their toe, loudly exclaiming Jesus H. Christ!
Taking these ancient acronyms another step, people have cleverly morphed these three-letter nicknames into something known as “backronyms,” which are alternate phrases attributed to existing acronyms. For example, IHS is sometimes interpreted as meaning Iesus Hominum Salvator, or “Jesus, Savior of men” in Latin. “In His Service” or “I Have Suffered” are also bandied about in church settings.
Along these lines, when I was in grade school, I had a friend whose Christian upbringing was a tad conservative. As such, she was taught to never use “xmas” as an abbreviation for Christmas because “it crosses out Christ’s name.” In fact, the origin of this commonly encountered Christogram is rooted in this same history. The letter X—which is the 22nd Greek letter, chi—is the first letter of the word Christ when written in Greek. Hence, the real meaning of xmas is really just Christmas in a squeeze for space.
Perhaps this year, as people grapple with the gift of so much spaciousness, we can dig a little deeper and find more meaning. As an option, there’s a fresh perspective on the reason for the season in Holy Moly: The Story of Duality, Darkness and a Daring Rescue.