This show, for most of you anyway, will be seen in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. So I’m going to give myself a holiday of sorts and take the week off from heavy-duty politics to devote the show to two segments of our occasional feature called And Another Thing. That’s where we step away from political stuff in favor of something else. Usually it’s some cool science stuff, but this time it’s some cool history stuff.
So for the rest of the show I’m going to be answering two questions: Why is Christmas on December 25? And why is New Year’s Day on January 1?
To answer about Christmas, right at the top, you have to realize something. Based on how we celebrate the season, based on how we - and by that I mean Americans and to a perhaps even greater extent Europeans - engage and embrace the season, the traditions we follow in our celebrations, Christmas is expressed in symbols such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, brightly-wrapped presents, candy canes, wreaths, and mistletoe, along with local traditions.
It is not expressed by a creche.
Because you know those people who go around saying that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was. Now that half of you are composing nasty emails, let me explain. The season is because of astronomical patterns.
Until relatively recently, people were much more aware of the movements of the Sun and Moon and stars than we are now unless you are either a dedicated stargazer or an astronomer.
Such movements were necessary signs of the changing of the seasons, of when to plant, when to reap, when seasonal rains were coming, when game would be plentiful, and so on. The sky was their almanac, their seasonal calendar.
Some of that awareness lives on in popular expressions and mythology. For example, did you ever wonder why the hot humid days of July and August still sometimes are called "the dog days?" Ancient peoples by their observations were able to realize that the star we call Sirius, which is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night in the middle of winter, is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the day in summer. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog, and is known as the Dog Star. So the middle of summer becomes the dog days.
In prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and each year watching it get lower and lower in the sky each day as winter approached, a fear developed that one year, one of these great cycles, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared below the horizon, leaving them in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was reason to celebrate.
This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, depending an exactly where you are, around December 21 or 22.
"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that "the Sun stands still," which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a stop and then reverse.
All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: Ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days, theirs involved a human sacrifice.
The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples of North America, including the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.
In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was called the Yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe, which was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was cut and a spray given to each family to be hung in doorways as good luck.
That is our first reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions - including the term "Yuletide," the time of the Yule - are drawn from pagan ones, including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.
For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.
No one knows the date Jesus was born, no one even knows for sure what season of the year it was - or even what year it was. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source we can be very confident that it was not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year; the flocks would most likely have been corralled.
In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves, which had lead some to argue he must have been born in the spring. But that is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.
What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or the Feast of Christ, or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days that was set down in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day listed for December 25th.
In fact, not only did early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries here) argue about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25 - some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods.
Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was getting established. Nonetheless, it took some time for that notion to become formalized and for a date to be fixed.
Which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who get such a kick this time of year every year out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.
Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, while Constantine considered himself “an emperor of the Christian people,” he did not actually formally convert by getting baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.
Getting back to the point, the first recorded date of the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th was not until 336, 300 years after Jesus died. And it wasn’t until 350 when Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.
But that just brings us back to the start. How did the chosen date, why did the chosen date, come down to December 25? That was the question, after all.
To answer that, first remember that these developments were taking place in Rome, which had become the nerve center of organized Christianity.
The date brings us back to the winter solstice. The Romans, like many other ancient peoples, had solstice celebrations. In Rome it was called Saturnalia.
Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far since a day or at most a few days later they would be back to just slaves, but hypothetically they could.
(Notice, by the way: traditions including decorating your home. Laurels. Visiting friends. Gift-giving. Holiday parties. Not Christian traditions, Roman ones. Pagan ones.)
The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21st.
But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome in the mid-2nd century, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25. Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis Indigeni, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.
This new being, this combination of Mithra and Solis Indigeni, this composite of two composites, was Sol Invictus, the invincible or unconquered Sun, and Mithra's day, December 25, became Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the unconquerable Sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.
During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books were collected and burned. Christians themselves were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.
So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - and the idea of having such a celebration was by then pretty widely accepted among Christians - you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain and it's really based on tradition and nothing more, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia - when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, when the birthday of the unconquerable Sun could be thought of as the birthday of the unconquerable “Son?"
Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, just a few decades after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking."
"Chrysostom," by the way, is I believe Greek for “golden-mouthed,” in praise of his eloquence.
By the year 354 CE, four years after Pope Julius I had designated it as such, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed.
Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome in 380, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas.
And so that is why Christmas in on December 25: Because Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.
But let me finish up by saying that even then the idea was not universally accepted. Origen's conviction that celebrating the birth of a god was for pagans persisted among conservative Christians for centuries, including among the separatists and Puritans who settled Plymouth and Boston here in Massachusetts. They regarded Christmas as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. In fact, there were laws against it.
As an illustration of the attitude, we have the journal of Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, who in the entry for 1621 recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling in the excerpt has been modernized.)
On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [Here is referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621, on a ship called “Fortune.”] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.Recall that Bradford is writing here in about 1631 or 1632, about 10 years after the fact.
And not just here at home. In 1647, Great Britain's Puritan-dominated parliament abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, known in the US as Pentecost.
Back in the US, in 1659, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas
altogether. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681, and even then it was a governor appointed by the restored British monarchy who revoked the ban.
Despite the lifting of the ban, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686. For many years thereafter, Thanksgiving remained the important seasonal holiday in New England.
In the wake of the revolution, interest in Christmas in the former colonies faded because it was seen as a British holiday. In fact, Christmas did not become a major holiday in the US until a religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in the day, particularly in the South. As a result, it was Louisiana, in 1837, which became the first state to make the day a holiday.
Even then, New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the first time Christmas was mentioned in one the town’s newspapers as far as anyone can tell wasn't until 1825. As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday” in the region, but, he added, "We are in a transition state."
And so it was: By 1860 that same Plymouth paper was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it had become in the rest of the country.