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

[ Posted Monday, December 24th, 2018 – 17:20 UTC ]

[Program Note: I set out to write an actual column on politics today, then thought better of it. So it'll probably run Wednesday or Thursday instead. Of course, this Friday will be the second part of our year-end awards column, so be sure to check back for that. But to get into the holiday spirit of things, I thought it'd be better to just re-run this old column, which I tend to run as an annual tradition anyway. One technical note: I have corrected "Constantine's wife" to "Constantine's mother," because not checking my facts through sheer laziness has always been part of the fun of blogging. Mea culpa to Saint Helena, and all of that.]


Originally Published December 24, 2007

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 mother 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 Quintillis), 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


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

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Good news on the pledge drive front -- we are extremely close to reaching our yearly goal...

    Woo hoo! No ads for all of 2019!


    I've updated the thermometer at the top of the screen to reflect how close we are to fulfilling our holiday dreams...


  2. [2] 
    John M wrote:

    In a lot of ways, I think Christmas has become a somewhat secular celebration in a lot of the world, with a tree, exchange of presents, lights etc. but without being Christ centered. Not that the Birth of Jesus still doesn't play a big part, especially in Latin America and the Holy land. (Though declining in the U.S. and Europe) But, if you think of other places like Japan, it has superficially been adopted as part of the whole "Western" transition into the "Western" New Year's Day Calendar celebration, don't you think?

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    All we need is a little "Christmas Goose" to get funding over the top.

  4. [4] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Merry Christmas!

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    merry x-men

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:
  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    nancy pelosi should put forward a bill that says during any future shutdowns, the first salaries that don't get paid are the president and congress. make it short, public, and simple enough for every joe six-pack to understand, and dare the GOP every day in the media not to pass it.

  8. [8] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    nypoet22 [7] - I really like that idea.

  9. [9] 
    Kick wrote:


    That really is a great idea... take away their pie and "let them eat cake." :)

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