From The Archives -- Why Christmas Is Not On The Solstice

[ Posted Monday, December 21st, 2009 – 11:49 UTC ]

[Program Note: This column is a repeat of a past Christmas column, which originally ran on Christmas Eve, 2007. Since today is the Winter Solstice, I thought it was an appropriate subject. While I apologize for offering up nothing but a re-run today, it was unavoidable, as I will spend most of today driving back and forth to the airport. The good news is that testing of the site was very successful this weekend, and our upgrade is back on schedule. We will be upgrading our core WordPress software at some point between Christmas and the new year, to improve security and add features. The framework for new features will be added during the upgrade, and then individual improvements will happen soon after. As always, I will keep regular readers informed of the progress through program notes such as this one. For today, happy Solstice everyone, and I hope you'll enjoy this timely column. Regular columns will resume tomorrow, and don't forget to check our Friday columns for the next two weeks, for our year-end awards presentations.]


When is Christmas? And why?

These are questions guaranteed to get you funny looks when you pop them, especially in a gathering of wassail-soaked relatives. But if you're tired of hearing the seemingly-eternal "this is what Uncle Fred did when he was twelve" stories, and you're leery of bringing up politics with your kin from Outer Podunk, then it's at least a conversation-starter that's somewhat neutral. Plus, you can reaffirm your nearest-and-dearests' image of you as a latte-sipping fruitcake who moved away from the glory of the heartland and now lives on (say it with an embarrassed whisper) the coast.

OK, I should stop editorializing here. After all, the subject at hand is Christmas.

Now, the first thing that has to be pointed out is that absolutely nobody alive today knows what day Christ was born on. [Note: I am postulating here that Christ did exist, was born, and that the Gospel stories of his birth are fairly accurate. That's a lot to postulate, but we don't want to make the Outer Podunkians' heads explode, so we've got to start from some sort of common ground.] And, from the Gospel of Luke, we read that the shepherds were "abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night." From this, we can probably guess that Jesus wasn't born in midwinter, but more likely in the spring or fall, as that's when the shepherds of that time took their flocks to the fields (and not in the middle of the winter). Meaning that setting "Christmas" on December 25th was likely about as accurate as the Emperor Constantine's wife going to the Holy Land 300 years after Christ was there, and then pointing at the ground and saying "this is where some event in the Bible took place."

But that's another story.

Adding to all of this confusion is the differing concepts of a "calendar" and a "year." The first people who came up with a calendar (and helpfully wrote it down in something easier to translate than, say, Stonehenge) were the Egyptians. Their yearly cycle revolved around one key date: the spring flooding of the Nile River. [Now, while it is very tempting, I refuse to make a "De Nile ain't just a river in Egypt" quip here, because that joke stopped being funny a long time ago.] Since their entire agricultural year began with this yearly event, they needed a way to predict it. Their magicians came up with a stunning idea which we still use today (albeit for a different reason). Since their whole number system was based on 12 (most number systems are based on 10 for the simple reason that that's how many fingers we have... but the Egyptians also counted an extra 2 -- one for each whole hand), they figured the year had to be a perfect multiple of 12, and so came up with 360 divisions of the Earth's path around the sun. Easy to remember, easy to use, and it divides cleanly with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and, of course, 12. Problem solved. It's such a convenient system everyone still uses it today, from math teachers to skateboarders -- as the number of degrees in a circle.

Except that it didn't work. It was off by a bit. So the Egyptians, who had twelve months of 30 days each just threw up their hands and added 5 feast days to the end of the year.

Now, "the end of the year" is just as fluid a concept as any in the calendar business. Most civilizations which followed used the Egyptian concept of spring being the beginning of the year. Makes sense, since that's when everything is born anew. The Romans even used this system, which is also still kind of in use today. If you start your calendar in March, then count forward, you have July as the fifth month (which was originally called Quntillis), August as the sixth (originally Sextillis), and then a numerical run of September (seven), October (eight), November (nine) and December (ten). January and February didn't even originally have names, and seeing as how they're the worst months of the year, weather-wise, it's not surprising.

Julius Caesar (and Augustus, after him) tinkered with the calendar even more, as it became apparent that 365 days for each year wasn't quite right. Julius added the concept of a "leap year" every four years, and because he was so proud of his new calendar he had to go and name a whole month after himself. Augustus kept the Julian calendar intact, except he also named a month after himself as well.

The concept of "Christmas" evolved over the centuries as well. Initially celebrated on January 6th, by the time of Constantine (fourth century AD), the church had learned a valuable lesson in marketing (the "new and improved" concept). The problem back then with converting pagans was that even after you went to all the trouble of converting them, they still wanted to celebrate their feasts on their traditional days. And the traditional midwinter festival day was always the solstice. Now, in 46 BC, when Julian was tinkering around with the calendar, the winter solstice had been on December 25th. So everyone was already used to celebrating on that day. The church came up with a compromise: a celebration lasting from 12/25 to 1/6 -- the "twelve days of Christmas." Eventually, they just kind of gave up and started celebrating Christmas on December 25th, and everyone was happy.

For a while, that is. But Julius hadn't gotten it quite right, either. The problem is, the year and the day have nothing to do with each other, astronomically-speaking. They just don't add up very easily. By the 1500s, anyone bright enough to measure the sun's daily movement with a stick in the ground noticed that the solstice was slowly moving. Although the feast day was on the 25th, the actual solstice had moved. If something wasn't done, pretty soon the whole calendar was going to slowly rotate through the actual year. So Pope Gregory XIII, in 1582, changed things around again. His new-and-improved calendar has leap years, but every year that ended in 00 was not to be a leap year. Except for every year evenly divisible by 400, which does have a leap day. Which means that February 29th, 2000 was a day that only comes once every four hundred years -- not just every 4 years, or even "doesn't come" every 100 years.

This is convoluted, but it actually works pretty well. It won't be off by a whole day for thousands of years, so it's close enough for government work, as they say. The problem was getting the actual governments to accept it. Now, since the Pope put his stamp of approval on it, Catholic Europe changed over pretty quickly in the late 1500s. But Protestant Europe took another couple hundred years to get around to it. England (and her colony, America) didn't switch over until 1752. Imagine the confusion in Europe for this period -- when crossing from one country to another, you didn't just change time zones, you entered a whole new calendar zone! In any case, the Gregorian calendar is the one we still use today.

The changeover had other effects as well, and didn't go over easily. Laborers, for instance, got paid wages by the month. But when Gregory made ten days in October disappear, their employers docked their wages and didn't pay them for a full month's time. Even the riots this caused were nothing compared to the wars (yes, actual wars) fought over when exactly to celebrate Easter.

But, eventually, the Gregorian calendar was accepted. Another interesting footnote for Americans is that when we switched over in the 1700s, George Washington changed his birthday. Some people (my mother's one of them) get annoyed by the concept of one "Presidents' Day" in February, instead of celebrating both Washington's and Lincoln's actual birthday. But Washington himself didn't celebrate his birthday on his "birthday." Washington was born February 11th, 1732. But when the calendar switched in America, there were eleven days' difference, so he changed it to February 22nd. When Americans started celebrating his birthday as a holiday (which they did while he was still alive), some celebrated on the 11th, and some on the 22nd. And you think we're politically divided today!

In any case, through Gregory's tinkering, the solstices were set on the 21st/22nd (they move around slightly, since they don't pay any attention to "leap years," while we do). But because everyone by the 1700s had forgotten about the pagan solstice and were now happily celebrating Christmas on the 25th, it stayed where it was.

So the concept of Christmas started by the church taking a pagan holiday, essentially filing the serial numbers off of it, announcing it "new and improved," and proclaiming it as Jesus' birthday. By the time they had to reset the calendar, nobody cared much about the solstice so it was allowed to slip three or four days. Christians worldwide are joyously celebrating the birth of Christ, everybody agrees on the date to do so, and a merry Christmas is had by all.


[You know, after reading all that, I'm not so sure that it is all that neutral a subject. Better talk about weather and sports with the Outer Podunkians, just to be safe.]


Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “From The Archives -- Why Christmas Is Not On The Solstice”

  1. [1] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Hi Chris,

    Still not quite into the Christmas spirit with all this Grinch-i-ness going around about the healthcare bill. But I think it's interesting that we're starting to see what the 11-dimensional chess game the White House and Rahm Emanuel are playing.

    In this WSJ article, Rahm Emanual explains his strategy that "there are no more liberals left to get."

    The strategy seems to be, bring the liberals in early with promises of reform, then yank out piece after piece to get conservative Democrats on board. Then threaten the liberals with "killing" health care reform if they back.

    All the while, the strategy relies on a President who never tips his hat about what he wants in the bill.

    This is how people like Lieberman come to have so much power. And why he will probably receive some fat PAC checks from the insurance industry come re-election time.

    The whole while, the bet the White House is making is that progressives will see them as the only game in town and will keep coming back.

    Maybe it's about time we stopped donating to the Democratic party (ok, self admission: I did some time ago) and started only donating to organizations who support doing the right thing.

    Rahm, you may get your vote through, but at what long term cost?


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    The whole while, the bet the White House is making is that progressives will see them as the only game in town and will keep coming back.

    All things being equal, it's been a pretty safe bet to date, wouldn't you agree??


  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    akadjian, Rahm will get his bill at the cost of 30 million insured Americans; and when the Party of No leaves you only 60 senators to win then you have to make a deal with Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. You will note these were the last two Senators to make up their minds, both looking for a scalp or a bribe from the pork barrel.

    Chris: Another excellent post. I find it funny how many Christian holidays are still named for their calendrical origins. Ostara became Easter, a fact that has led some fringe denominations to stop celebrating it.

    Another important thing that Gregory did was codify Catholic sex laws. Much of the Catholic dogma that makes us shake our heads comes from his papacy; he was the one who forbid anybody to have sex unless they were attempting procreation.

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    It certainly is a game that keeps repeating itself.

    1. Get the base excited with promises
    2. Remember, what really wins elections is money
    3. When it comes time to legislate, appease your corporate donors
    4. Toss the base a cookie every now and then

    Republicans are not much different. For example, they never really passed any "faith-based initiatives". Same with banning Roe vs. Wade. If they ever actually did this, then the abortion wingnuts would have no reason to rally behind them.

    The incentive, as screwed up as it seems, is for politicians to do as little as possible for their most fervent supporters.

    So guess it shouldn't come as a surprise. Guess the real moral is you have to always be vigilant. And work to hold our politicians feet to the fire ...

    I finally got through to Sherrod Brown. But not until later this afternoon. His phone was busy all morning. Encouraging that so many people are not buying this.

    @Michale -
    Ask Bill Nelson not to support the health care bill.
    Nelson, Bill - (D - FL)
    (202) 224-5274


  5. [5] 
    akadjian wrote:

    But it didn't have to be this way. What if Obama came out and said, I will not sign a bill without a public option? Or, what if they went to the centrists first and worked to get them onboard? Why not put pressure on people like Lieberman and Nelson?

    I don't think the Dems fully realize what they're signing onto with this bill. Without any competition, the insurance industry will still set prices. Sure they can't deny coverage, but they don't need to - just raise the price beyond what someone can afford to pay and then go after them for illegally not having health insurance.

    Are we really going to put millions in jail for not having health insurance? Who's going to enforce this nightmare?

    Here is a bill in which conservative corporations are actually getting almost everything they want - no competition, make it illegal to not have health insurance. And ... even better ... they've opposed it the whole way so that they can just blame any mess on Democrats.

    Guess the Dems have made a calculated gamble that they can say "we passed something historic!" But it seems like a short-term gamble that jeopardizes long-term success.


  6. [6] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:


    "What if Obama came out and said, I will not sign a bill without a public option?"

    --The answer is that you'd probably have no bill. Lieberman was making these noises RE: the public option back in June. A veto threat might very well have stalled the process or else produced a crisis where Obama had to relent on his threat to pass the best bill Congress could make. I'll be going into this more over at my site in the next week.

    "Or, what if they went to the centrists first and worked to get them onboard?"

    --Answer: there were 60 Senators willing to entertain a bill at all. All of them had to say yes to a bill or you'd have NO BILL. There were no more centrists to get.

    "Why not put pressure on people like Lieberman and Nelson?"

    While I'd love to see Obama rip off his shirt like Dwayne Johnson on SNL and demolish the set with Ben Nelson's bulbous face, take a moment to remember there are other critical bills coming down the pipeline: cap & trade, financial reform, jobs bills, etc. Obama will need 60 votes on all of those too.

    So when you ask that question, imagine a couple of pissed off Democrats holding up climate change legislation (and hence Obama's foreign policy agenda) out of sheer spite. Would you put it past either Nelson or Lieberman to do something like that? I wouldn't.

    "I don't think the Dems fully realize what they're signing onto with this bill. Without any competition, the insurance industry will still set prices. Sure they can't deny coverage, but they don't need to - just raise the price beyond what someone can afford to pay and then go after them for illegally not having health insurance."

    Actually, the CBO is quite sure that costs will go down across the board. Check out this chart. What you're proposing is that families and individuals and businesses that want insurance, but cannot now afford it, will suddenly refuse to buy it when it's far cheaper.

    "Are we really going to put millions in jail for not having health insurance? Who's going to enforce this nightmare?"

    --The IRS will enforce the mandate. There will be some healthy, younger Americans who refuse to buy insurance, reckoning the tax penalty is less than they would have to pay. Those taxes will be used to provide coverage for everyone else (and for the healthy, younger Americans when they wind up in the ER and can't pay the bills).

    I want you to consider this thought: if we did pass a single-payer, Medicare-for-all bill tomorrow, it would require instant taxation -- of everyone.

    The bill is by NO MEANS perfect. It's not even close to perfect. But it's a start, and as I've been arguing for a week now the public option won't work without all the wonky stuff that's in this bill -- but you can't pass that stuff through budget reconciliation rules.

    You can, however, pass a public option through those rules because it's a deficit-reducer. So reconciliation is a good "and" strategy, but a very bad "or" strategy for the bulk of reforms that need to happen.

    The public option isn't dead. It's just not in this bill.

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Actually, the CBO is quite sure that costs will go down across the board.

    Actually, this is pure and utter bullshit..

    Oh, I am sure that the CBO said that. They had to, because they had to obey the strictures that the White House put out.

    But it's a gimmick, pure and simple.

    All the costs of crap care we will see first. So, from 2010 to 2020, the CBO's analysis is probably accurate.

    But what the CBO DOESN'T tell us is that, the so-called "benefits" of CrapCare don't kick in until 2014. So, the REAL 10 year cost of CrapCare, from 2014 to 2024 is a 2.5 TRILLION dollars addition to the US deficit.

    Once again, we see another lie from President Obama when he claimed he would veto any legislation that wasn't deficit-neutral.

    Strange how the Left doesn't seem to mind their President lying, as long as it is THEIR President that is lying, eh?


  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    One question that has been ignored by the Left (not surprisingly) is, "Is CrapCare Constitutional??"

    Where in the US Constitution does it give Congress the power to mandate that all US Citizens MUST purchase a private sector product?

    Or, is it now Democrats who are saying that "the Constitution is just a piece of paper"?


  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:


    While I'm partly with you on the importance of passing something, I completely disagree with this "Rahm Emanuel" approach.

    You seem to be saying that Lieberman and Nelson will dictate all future legislation.

    If this seems to be the case, maybe some liberal Senators need to not hop onboard so early. Maybe they need to hold out longer until the moderates are onboard and don't let the Obama administration stick it to them as they did this time.

    Letting Nelson and Lieberman dictate the terms was Obama's choice and it does not have to be.

    Obama was elected on a Democratic platform of change. If he continues to let conservatives like Lieberman/Nelson dictate the party agenda, those who fought passionately for him may not fight so passionately for the party in the future.

    As for the idea that this legislation will somehow reign in costs, I hope you are right. But I see all of the big insurance companies stocks rise as the bill gets closer to passing and to me, this indicates that they will retain all the control they want over setting prices.

    As for folks who see discussions like ours as fissures within the Democratic party, that's crap. I still by-and-large support Democrats. But it seems liberals may be tired of being taken for granted. We were the force that worked to elect Obama. Not conservative centrists. So is it any wonder that we question why Obama is pandering to the Liebermans of the world?

    I hope in coming months, Obama looks to change his tactics to better pass legislation w/o offending his base. Because if this happens again, I'd hope that the Browns and Feingolds of the world would see it coming and not sign on so early.

    The Dems seem to have no qualms pressuring liberal Congress Critters to sign on to bills. Maybe they should use the power of their party to pressure centrist Dems and actually stand up for some of the ideals they say they are for.

    Happy Holidays!

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    So much for having to worry about any Conference Committee issues...

    Once again, we see how low Democrats will sink to further their agenda..


  11. [11] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Best analysis I've seen yet of Obama's approach to legislation ...


  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    David -

    Just to answer the last comment here first, here's another really interesting look, from the guy who wrote "The Political Brain," Drew Westin:


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