What time’s Xmas?
The seasons are determined by the time it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun – just over 365 days – and the way the Earth tilts on its axis. The Summer Solstice is the longest day (Midsummer Day in June), and the two equinoxes (Spring and Autumn) are when night and day are the same length. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day (tomorrow, 21st December 2008), when the North Pole is furthest from the Sun because of the Earth’s orbit and its tilt.
The Spring Solstice has been celebrated through the ages as a festival of new life. The Church introduced a religious festival called Easter (a name derived from an Anglo-Saxon goddess’s name) at about the time of the Spring Equinox; the date isn’t fixed in the ecclesiastical calendar, as Christmas is. The date that Christmas Day falls on has changed because the calendar has been changed. The most commonly used calendar today is the Gregorian Calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in February 1582. It replaced Julius Caesar’s Julian Calendar, which was introduced in 46 BC, and that replaced a series of Roman calendars that were essentially lunar. The Greeks had other calendars.
Consequently, the year began and ended at different times in different eras, and the midwinter festival that had previously been based on the solstice was claimed as a Christian festival and fixed at 25th December in 237 AD. That’s 25th December in the Gregorian Calendar. In the Julian Calendar it falls on 7th January; Christmas is still celebrated in January by some Orthodox Christians.
Only those who are ignorant of the facts (a substantial number of Christians) will insist that Christ was born on 25th December. No one really knows, but the Church decided to claim the midwinter solstice festival because it was when the Romans celebrated “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun”. Christ was probably born sometime between 7 and 4 BC, and almost certainly not in the winter.
It’s this sort of thing that tends to make some atheists (including me) rather irritable whenever a priest mentions “the real meaning of Christmas”. This “meaning” is only “real” for Christians. Most of the story of Jesus, not just the date of his birth, is a myth. He wasn’t even an original divine figure.
And as for the calendar; it has to be adjusted to allow for earthly wobbles, so an extra second will be added to the world’s clocks just before midnight on 31st January 2008*, a “leap second”. Happy New Year and a bit!