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Dorm asked to change holiday sign

Karen Langley | Friday, December 7, 2007

This holiday season, Pangborn Hall put the Christ back in Christmas.

But the 19-foot-wide white and purple sign on the front of the dorm proclaiming “Have a Phoxy Christmas” didn’t always read as such. Until last week, when a University administrator asked Pangborn rector Kuukua Yomekpe to change it, the sign bore a more economical spelling: “Have a Phoxy Xmas.”

The events leading to this change began two weeks ago, when Yomekpe submitted a work order form to have workers from the Maintenance Department hang the sign on the front of Pangborn. Construction of the sign had concluded just a day earlier after months of work by hall president Allie Carrick and a friend from Dillon.

With Thanksgiving just days away, no progress on hanging the sign was made until Nov. 28, when Yomekpe was able to speak with a staff member from Maintenance, she said. They agreed the sign would be hung in front of the dorm.

Hours later, Yomekpe said, she received a call from Associate Vice President for Residence Life Bill Kirk.

Kirk told her the sign could not be hung as it was, so as not to “take Christ out of Christmas,” she said.

Kirk confirmed that he had asked Yomekpe to have the sign changed for that reason.

Carrick had worked on the sign since March, and so she and Yomekpe agreed it would be unreasonable for hall residents to make the changes themselves.

“We were sort of blindsided,” Carrick said. “We didn’t expect there to be a problem.”

She expressed frustration because the “X” had been used in place of “Christ” to allow the sign to balance correctly and conserve materials, thus cutting down on cost. After spending more than 40 hours constructing the sign, she had wanted it to be on display for the longest possible time before winter break.

Kirk said he never believed any disrespect was intended by Pangborn residents or staff and appreciated their desire to display their decorations but stood by his decision to request a change in the sign’s spelling.

“When you think about the rectors and students who live in dorms, it’s their home,” he said. “But when you put public decorations outside, it’s open to the broader University

community and visitors.”

The next morning, the sign was taken to the campus carpentry shop, where it underwent the removal of one letter and the addition of five more. Though Pangborn had funded the sign, the cost of the changes was taken on by Maintenance, Yomekpe said.

The sign was displayed in front of Pangborn on Monday evening.

Though the saying “keep Christ in Christmas” has been in use in mainstream Christian circles, the sign’s original spelling may not be without historical and theological precedent.

Father Gary Chamberland, priest in residence at Pangborn Hall, said the use of the letter X as a shorthand for Christ dates back at least one thousand years.

“As somebody who is fairly learned in aspects of Christianity, including some of these nuances, I honestly don’t understand why the change had to be made,” Chamberland said.

The letter X is also the written form of the Greek letter called chi. This letter is an “ancient shorthand for Christ,” he said.

The complete shorthand includes the rho and chi, the first two letters in the Greek spelling of Christ, superimposed over one another, he said.

This shorthand came into play when early Christians copied many manuscripts, Chamberland said. The spelling “Xmas” is still pronounced as “Christmas,” he said.

“I would argue from a pretty solid perspective that all he did was change Christmas to Christmas,” Chamberland said.

In the 1920s, a fundamentalist preacher began a movement that writing Christmas with the shorthand X was an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas, he said.

But Kirk, who cited Bill O’Reilly as one example of a figure who has publicly proclaimed the need to “keep Christ in Christmas,” remained unconvinced.

“I understand the whole Greek letter thing,” Kirk said. “But a lot of people would see it and say, ‘At Notre Dame, can’t we have Christ at Christmas?'”

Despite the anxiety of the past week, Carrick said the important thing is that the sign is finally up for the Pangborn residents to enjoy.

But for Yomekpe, the situation has raised certain qualms about the relationship between hall rectors and the University administration in governing hall activity.

“The change is not that important,” she said. “It’s the principle … to be told no and not have a part in that conversation.”

Yomekpe questioned why she was informed of the decision at what she considered to be the end of the process.

“What else do we not have control over?” she said. “I think the biggest conversation within the rector community is [whether] you’re in charge of your dorm. This kind of set me back a little bit in terms of maybe I’m not in charge of my dorm.”

Kirk said a “team effort” is needed to ensure the operations of residence life on campus. Rectors are employees of Student Affairs who answer to the vice president for student affairs, but the system is “not hierarchical,” he said.

“I don’t order anyone around,” Kirk said. “It’s just not the way we work. It’s a very collegial relationship.”