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

[ Posted Wednesday, December 21st, 2022 – 16:38 UTC ]

I am digging in to the second of our year-end awards columns, so I decided to go with a repeat today. It is, after all, the shortest day of the year and I wrote about the subject a long time ago (which has survived the test of time pretty well).

Hope everyone out there is having a great holiday season and hope your travels go well (what with that monster storm off on the horizon). Don't forget to click on the "Donate" button if you want to send us some holiday cheer, too! And I wanted to wish everyone a happy Winter Solstice no matter what circumstances you find yourself in this year.

Oh, one technical note on the text: 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


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

  1. [1] 
    Speak2 wrote:

    I don't know that I ever paid attention to the details here. The Egyptians made a number of changes to the "calendar" and the Romans, under Julius Caesar, adopted a number of them. But the 360-day calendar precedes Egypt.

    The Earth revolved around the sun in a perfect circle, because of course that's how the Gods would do such a thing. One day was 1/360 of a year, 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 360 degrees in a revolution.

    All of that is Sumerian and later, Babylonian. They used a base-60 numbering system (hence clocks and Degree-Minute-Second metrics). That doesn't square quite as nicely with 360, so that may have meaning that precedes the Sumerian civilization.

    Egypt's number system was base-10 not base-12.

    I could bore you with a messload more, but FWIW, in a court, this would qualify as expert testimony.

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I have a book recommendation for the holidays. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the author Naomi Novik, she blends fantasy with realism - in my opinion better than anyone since Bulgakov. And nowhere does she do so as seamlessly as in Spinning Silver, a Jewish-Slavic integration of at least three fairytales i know of with the very real lives that people in that region endured in the middle ages. I first experienced the story in audiobook form, but it's a great read on paper as well. Avoid the wiki though - spoilers.

  3. [3] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    nypoet22 is absolutely right--Spinning Silver is a great read.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Also because it starts on chanukah.

    "By the eighth day my mother was too tired from coughing to get out of bed at all. She'll be alright soon, my father said, avoiding my eyes. This cold will break soon; it's been so long already. He was whittling candles out of wood - little narrow sticks to burn, because we'd used the last drops of oil the night before. There wasn't going to be any miracle of light in our house."

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Waiting on part 2 of the awards column with bated breath

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Me, too ... and the check, er money order is in the mail!

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    And the PayPal too.

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Oh crap, comments on the article haven't been opened yet.

    Great read so far, i just stopped to comment because i realized i was ambiguous in my nomination for boldest political tactic. By "doubling down on Dobbs" (which i wrote that way mainly for the alliteration) i meant DEMOCRATS, not Republicans. Even after the early shock in Kansas, it took guts to stick to that tactic in the face of lukewarm pre-election polling for house and Senate races.

    Indeed, cw awarded the very same in the subsequent category, so i felt i should clear up what i had meant.


  9. [9] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    The comments are still closed.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Who wonders why?

  11. [11] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Chris, I never got as bent as you over Dems promoting rabid right-wing Repugs and then beating every one of them in the general election — every one!

    It worked, man!! Why the handwringing?

    Ask yourself, wouldn’t Mitch McConnell do the exact same thing if he had the chance? Of course he would, just as he’ll dump the filibuster the moment they take control of the Senate.

    So bless it and call it good. Consider this to be a Democratic political jujitsu move. Using the enemy’s forceful bull rush and flipping them over your shoulder and thence flat on their backs is, dare I say it, Bidenesque. Remember the Covid-19 summer of 2020, when Trump was destroying himself and Joe pulled a Sun Tsu and stood aside, literally chilling in his nice air conditioned basement?

  12. [12] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Yep, nothing to see here folks, just Biden practicing good politics.

    And Elizabeth,

    Not taking Ukrainian NATO membership off of the table had nothing to do with Putin invading or not, for this war started back in 2014, when Putin invaded first Crimea and then Donbas. Joe was only Veep to Obama the Wuss, so stop bagging on Joe! Putin simply widened the conflict eight years in. Just because Russia wants to control Ukraine doesn’t mean dink and appeasement guarantees more imperialism (see Munich, 1938. Don’t just call that an asinine analogy tell me why I’m wrong.)

  13. [13] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Any version of NATO left Putin no choice but to invade… is being a Rooskie apologist, IMO.

  14. [14] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    It worked, man!! Why the handwringing?

    Ask yourself, wouldn’t Mitch McConnell do the exact same thing if he had the chance?


    He not only would but probably already has, just not out in the bright lights of the media.

    in a free country there needs to be some balance between realpolitik and high principles. I think that publicly supporting crazy people for office, even if only in the primaries, is at least one bridge too far. At least at that level i agree with cw, the principle of the thing is too toxic. I'm not opposed to running ads that might tangentially have a similar impact, but i would never explicitly TRY to put a known madman on a general election ballot.

  15. [15] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Many Democrats were doubtlessly thinking about helping put Donald on the ballot in 2016 so that he could lose to Hillary, and i don't think i need to go into detail about how poorly THAT worked out.

  16. [16] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    How are you all now?

    I see Biden's making it happen, Trump's still fucking bonkers.

    Objectively, that's better than it was.

    Howling national nightmares aside hope ya'll are well...

    CW..As always, a galloping read, a joy to be read.



  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Get serious!

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Here's a quote I've been saving just for you, taken from the latest piece by my other favourite (geo-)political analyst ...

    "Alternatives to the latest long war scenario? A number of things occur, but I dislike cleaning up the stupidity of folks who deliberately ignored many years of warnings. Hey, I like the old Colin Powell saying: “You break it, you bought it.” Putin, a supposedly clever spymaster, chose unimaginative war while Biden, airily refusing to even discuss eternal Russian opposition to NATO in Ukraine, chose confrontation and crisis. Both chose unwisely."

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Oh, and Merry Christmas, everyone - stay warm! :)

  20. [20] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Not taking Ukrainian NATO membership off of the table had nothing to do with Putin invading or not...

    A triple negative, Caddy?

  21. [21] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm not at all surprised that you are confused. Ahem.

  22. [22] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    One does not need to be confused to strongly disagree with your assessment.

  23. [23] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    How about you address my point(s) instead of posting useless dodges like get serious or that’s asinine? In other words, don’t be a Michale — address the point, please.

    Cleanup on Aisle MtnCaddy:

    Not taking NATO off the table did NOT start this war, the latest hot phase having started eight years ago. NATO membership and Ukrainian Nazis et al were excuses for Russia doing what it’s been doing to it’s neighbors FOR CENTURIES, trying to gain strategic depth via buffer states.


    I am not at all surprised that you are confused. Ahem.

    So WTF does that mean? Also, you didn’t name your Geopoliticist nor provide a link. Kindly do both. Sounds like it could be John Mearsheimer but there are other Putin apologists out there

  24. [24] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I have named my other favourite (geo-)political analyst many times around here and have even posted a column or two of his over the years. His name is William Bradley, a fellow Californian now living in the LA area, and you have to be on his email list to get his stuff so, sorry, I have no link. I could forward his pieces to your personal email if you'd like. Do you agree with his assessment, encapsulated in the quote above?

    You are confusing real world truths with appeasement and I'm sick and tired of it. I have explained many times over why you are wrong about this.

    Not taking NATO off the table did NOT start this war...

    Try this on: Taking NATO off the table, as Biden and his NATO allies did, turned a manageable regional security crisis into a multi-faceted set of international crises and turned Ukraine into a basket case that will forever be dependent upon America for its survival and well-being. But, it will never be a member of NATO. That much has not changed. So much for Ukrainian sovereignty, eh?

  25. [25] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    By the way, referring to those you disagree with on this file as "Putin apologists" won't get you very far if a serious discussion is what you want.

  26. [26] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    William Bradley Bio from his Huffington Post days ...

  27. [27] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Have you considered how the war in Ukraine will end?

  28. [28] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    As I recall, I believe we agree on the general outlines of what that might look like ...

  29. [29] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    other words, don’t be a Michale — address the point, please.

    What? You made a point? What point was that? Hope you have a very Merry Christmas, Caddy! And, I mean that sincerely, I'm not trying to be facetious, here ... :-)

  30. [30] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Yes, i have.

  31. [31] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yes, I remember now ... it is Kick's version that I am waiting for.

  32. [32] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    To quote cw from Fridays article:

    Money spent to beef up Ukraine's military is directly contributing to the degradation of the Russian military. That is a wonderful investment, when you think about it. No matter what the final outcome turns out to be in Ukraine, Russia will have to spend years rebuilding to even get its military back to the sorry state it was in, pre-invasion. They just refuse to learn the battlefield lessons and keep doubling down on classic Russian tactics (which can be summed up as: "send as many thousands of men as you can into the fire as pure cannon fodder in the hopes of eventually wearing the enemy down").

    This has exposed not Russian strength, but Russian weakness to the world. As we said, an easy case can be made that that's a great investment for the United States to be making.

  33. [33] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Which part do you surmise I disagree with?

  34. [34] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    no particular disagreement surmised, it's a response to "Have you considered how the war in Ukraine will end?"

    to repeat, No matter what the final outcome turns out to be in Ukraine, Russia will have to spend years rebuilding to even get its military back to the sorry state it was in, pre-invasion.

  35. [35] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yeah, weakening Russia seems to be the only thing that matters. Forget about what's happening to Ukraine and its people! That is where my disagreement lies.

  36. [36] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I bet Kick will have a better response ...

  37. [37] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    A weaker, less-threatening Russia is not the only thing that matters, but it does matter. Another near certain outcome is that Ukraine will rebuild itself with a much stronger national identity than it ever had prior, significantly more tightly connected to both Western democracies AND to Western democracy. One reason why so many people thought Putin would not invade is that they thought he'd anticipate that outcome as a strong possibility. Given his prior successes in diplomacy and information warfare, i guess we all overestimated him.

  38. [38] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Well, Ukraine certainly will need a lot of help to rebuild itself when the long war scenario that the Biden administration seems stuck on finally, mercifully winds down - the US and NATO allies won't be able to provide all of that help by themselves.

    Ukraine will definitely be vastly more tightly connected to the West and Western democracy.

    Meanwhile, Russia seems to be doing just fine. Talk of a Ukrainian offensive is being replaced with talk of a Russian offensive.

    And, on the bright side, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and primary military advisor to Biden is advocating for a negotiated settlement. God bless him!

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