Saturday, December 21, 2019

Reflections on the Winter Solstice and the date of Christmas

Tomorrow, Sunday 22nd December, is the winter solstice (in the Northern hemisphere): the shortest day of the year.

It's not the coldest day of the year - it will continue to get colder for several weeks yet - but it is the darkest and for many people, the most depressing.

Going back for thousands of years, most cultures have had a celebration at about this time of year, to mark the fact that we have passed the point when there is least daylight and from here on the days start getting longer again.

For modern societies whose culture is based on Christianity, the festival of Christmas conveniently serves this purpose. There is nothing in the bible from which the precise date of the birth of Jesus can be derived or even which year (it is most likely to have been between the years which our current calendar labels as 6BC and 6AD.)

Whatever the basis for the selection of 25th December as the date for Christmas, this decision was made a long, long time ago: the earliest known records of the celebration of Christmas on 25th December go back to 336 AD and the Roman Empire.  However, there are also records dating back to the same century which suggest an alternative date to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 6th January. Christians in Armenia still to this day celebrate Christmas on 6th January.

The Western Christian church resolves the conflict between these two dates by celebrating the 25th of December as the date when Jesus was born and 6th January as Epiphany, the anniversary of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, with the twelve days from one to the other being the twelve days of Christmas.

It is often alleged that the Church deliberately picked 25th December to coincide with ancient pagan festivals of the winter solstice: this allegation is extremely old, dating back to the twelfth century, but there are problems with it. For a start, old as the allegation is, the earliest known instance of it being made in a note in the margin of a manuscript on the writings of the biblical commentator Dionysus is still eight centuries later than the earliest celebrations of Christmas on 25th December back in 336AD. So we are talking about a theory put forward centuries after the event, not any kind of evidence.

Further, the arguments which are often advanced in favour of the theory - relating to the pagan traditions which have often been associated with Christmas - inconveniently fail to take account of the fact that, at the time in the fourth century when Christmas was set on 25th December the Christians of that era were not notably influenced by pagan traditions and indeed usually attempted to emphasises their differences from them. (Most of the pagan trimmings which have since become associated with the popular celebration of Christmas were not adopted until many, many centuries after the adoption of the date of 25th December.)

Those who are interested in looking into the matter further may find this site informative.

I suspect however that for most of us, after a long and busy year, we are glad to have reached a much needed holiday break. I wish everyone who is reading this, and their families, a Happy Christmas and a prosperous, happy and healthy New Year 2020.

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