In grade school catechism class I learned that the early Catholic Church placed Christmas on December 25th to counter the pagan holidays occurring at the Winter Solstice. I repeat this with authority, because on matters such as this, I consider the source to be no less accurate than Wikipedia.
Whether this Fourth Century strategy of declaring December 25 to be Christmas was to co-opt the existing spiritual mindset or to use the wonderful symbolism of the savior born as the darkness begins receding, it is maddeningly inaccurate. Christmas typically misses the solstice by 3 or 4 days, depending on the year.
Equally annoying is the fact that New Year’s Day is not until a week later. Sixteenth Century powers that be set up an annual calendar that delineates “Before Christ” from “the Year of our Lord”. But each year itself has a “Before Christ” period, followed by a “Few Days of our Lord.”
I know nobody believes that the calendar by a centuries-long committee got much right. I’ve heard theories placing an actual date to Jesus’ birth based on which season the Shepherds would have been tending their flock at night and when an astrological event might have illuminated a celestial beacon to guide wise men to the Christ Child. As far as the year – prevailing thinking has Christ born several years Before Christ.
Now, I don’t expect leaders of the Middle Ages to be accurate, but couldn’t they have been a bit more consistent? If you’re assigning an arbitrary birthday based on the solstice, why not place it on the solstice? When you’re establishing a first year based on the birth of Christ, why not start it at your already-established date of the birth of Christ?
So, Year 1 A.D. is the year Jesus was born. With the Little Lord Jesus arriving late in the year, under the established scheme, it was already Year Two of Our Lord by the time Jesus was a week old.
Which brings me to my biggest calendar peeve of all – that the calendar designers started the yearly odometer at 1 instead of 0. As one trained in computer programming – this drives me crazy. Start your iterative loops at zero and you’ll avoid a lot of trouble – remember that whole debate whether 2000 or 2001 was the start of the millennium? There are consecutive historical years of 1 B.C. and 1 A.D. That’s counting from -1 to 1 while skipping over zero.
The season of annual rebirth ends up as a big old Western Calendar fudge factor. This year’s winter solstice arrives on December 21 (Northern Hemisphere, GMT), giving us a twelve day period of renewal. Hold it, the Twelve Days of Christmas? That sounds familiar. But, alas, those musical 12 days are based on the period from Christmas to the Epiphany, which is – get this – 13 days. I guess in the fabulous game-show-eight-day-seven-night-vacation-package logic – you would only be charged for 12 days for the hotel room. Mr. True Love got lucky he didn’t have to buy Thirteen somethings somethinging.*
It’s too late to do anything about it now, of course. And, I guess, like all good fudge factors, this thing works okay in its own way. The calendar gives us three distinct beginnings each winter season — the Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year’s Day – one natural, one spiritual, one secular. I don’t know about you, but I could use all three.
* In the litany of the “12 Days” gifts — note the interesting gift order. For seven days, it’s birds, birds, birds – with just a day interlude for the golden rings. Imagine the Eighth day:
True Love: Honey, guess what I’ve got for you today? Close your eyes and don’t open them until I tell you.
Honey (to herself): Oh, god. Please not more birds. How about some more of those golden rings.
True Love: Okay, you can open your eyes.
Honey (opening eyes): Who are the hayseeds?
True Love: Eight Maids A Milking, my love.
Honey: Humans? I get servants? I’m going to need to hock those rings just to pay for their salaries.
True Love: Dear, just you wait for the rest of the week.
Honey: Well, at least they’ve got an agriculture background. Maybe they can help take care of all those damn birds.