The How and Why of 25 December: The Early History of Christmas
It took three hundred years following the death of Christ before Christians began celebrating his birth on 25 December. The fathers of the early Church were not sure that birthdays ought to be celebrated. Origen (185-253/254) wrote that ‘In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world’. And even Saint Ambrose (340-397) expressed the idea that ‘the day of our burial is called our birthday because, being set free from the prison of our crimes, we are born to the liberty of the Saviour’.
When they did look into the matter, nor could they agree on the precise date of the Nativity. Indeed at some point Church theologians have argued convincingly for every month in the calendar as the month of Jesus’ birth. In Egypt, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) records some ascribing the day to 20 May, others to 19 or 20 April. As the supposed date on which God created the sun, 28 March was posited during the same period. And less helpfully still, Polycarp (80-167) had already suggested that, as the sun according to Genesis was created on the fourth day, Christ’s birth surely occurred on a Wednesday.
Some more recent analyses of the Nativity account in Luke – with Luke 2:8 reading ‘And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night’ – have maintained that Jesus must have been born no later than September, when rain forced Jewish shepherds to bring their flocks of sheep in from the fields, thereby ending their annual watch. But other accounts allege groups of shepherds who stayed out with their sheep all year round.
An illustrated manuscript known as the Chronography of 354, also referred to as the Calendar of Filocalus, shows that by 354 Rome celebrated the Nativity on 25 December. In the East however, the celebration of Christ’s birth remained connected to the Epiphany of 6 January. The date of 25 December spread from Rome to Constantinople around 379, initially at the urging of Gregory of Nazianzus; while it reached Antioch in 386, courtesy of the preaching of John Chrysostom. The December feast day reached Egypt between 427 and 433, while in Jerusalem the bond between the Nativity and the Epiphany remained still longer.
There are several rationales for the eventual choice of 25 December. Irenaeus (130-202) began a tradition of placing Christ’s conception on 25 March, with the Nativity therefore occurring precisely nine months later. Others attempted to tie the date of Christ’s conception to the spring equinox, and the date of his birth to the winter solstice. And in 274, the Roman Emperor Aurelian confirmed 25 December as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the birthday of the ‘Unconquered Sun’, the official sun god of the later Empire – so that the Christian adoption of the date may equally have its roots in this pagan festival. The same day was used to commemorate the birth of the Persian god Mithras, who remained popular with the Roman military.
As for the word ‘Christmas’, it is a compound derived from the late Old English Cristesmaesse, which was first recorded in 1038. By 1131, it appeared in Middle English as Cristemasse. Crist is from the Greek Khrīstos, meaning ‘Christ’, ‘Messiah’, or originally ‘the anointed’, while maesse is from the Latin missa, which refers to the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist.
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Elf on the Shelf Brings Girls to Tears
For one perspective on Christmas today, we can turn towards The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition. A children’s picture book, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, illustrated by Coë Steinwart, and published in 2004, it tells in rhyme the story of elves who spy on youngsters between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, reporting back to the North Pole every night to pass on their findings to Santa.
The book comes with a soft toy in the form of one of the titular elves, and the idea is that parents will hide this creature in a new spot about the home each morning, thereby ensuring good behaviour. As the crucial rhyme states, ‘There’s only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.’
But this week a seven-year-old girl from Old Bridge, New Jersey fell afoul of this warning. Having touched her Elf on the Shelf, Isabelle LaPeruta called 911 in a state of distress, reporting the incident as an ‘accident’, but content with unburdening her soul asking the police not to visit. However as all 911 calls must be followed up, an officer duly arrived at Isabelle’s house, only to find the youngster crying.
When her mother awoke as she tried to send the officer away, Isabelle was forced to admit that she had thrown a ball, inadvertently knocking the elf onto the floor. She apologised, and promised to neither touch the elf nor call 911 again. Old Bridge Police Lieutenant Joseph Mandola said, ‘To her, it was an emergency when she touched the elf, and she’s going to ruin Christmas, so that was her emergency. In her mind, she did right, and it was fine with us.’
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Filmed in Karasjok, Norway – 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle – the special used a fixed camera to follow a traditional reindeer sleigh on an ancient postal route, passing over the hills, birch forests, frozen lakes, and traditional settlements occupied by the Sami.
The journey took two hours, and the special comes without commentary or music, leaving only the crunching of snow, the twinkling of a reindeer bell, and the distant crackling of fires and snatches of brief conversation. Facts about the Sami, their reindeer, the Arctic climate, and the history of the region occasionally emerge on screen, in stills that melt into the landscape.
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A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Soundtrack
Here in full is the graceful and evocative soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Composed by the pianist and conductor Vince Guaraldi, it was released in December 1965 to accompany the animated TV special. It features several original songs, including ‘Christmas Time is Here’ which plays over the special’s ice skating opening, alongside covers of contemporary standards.
- ‘O Tannenbaum’ (Ernst Anschütz) – 0:00, ‘What Child Is This’ (William Chatterton Dix) – 5:08, ‘My Little Drum’ (Vince Guaraldi) – 7:33, ‘Linus and Lucy’ (Guaraldi) – 10:46, ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ (Vocal) (Guaraldi) – 13:53, ‘Skating’ (Guaraldi) – 16:40, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ (Charles Wesley) – 19:07, ‘Christmas Is Coming’ (Guaraldi) – 21:02, ‘Für Elise’ (Ludwig van Beethoven) – 24:28, ‘The Christmas Song’ (Mel Tormé, Robert Wells) – 25:35, ‘Greensleeves’ (Traditional) – 28:53, ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ (Instrumental) (Guaraldi) – 34:20
- With Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown, Chris Shea as Linus van Pelt, Tracy Stratford as Lucille “Lucy” van Pelt, Kathy Steinberg as Sally Brown, and Bill Melendez as Snoopy. Additional voices were provided by Chris Doran as Schroeder and Shermy, Karen Mendelson as Patty, Geoffrey Orstein as Pig-Pen, Sally Dryer as Violet Gray, and Anne Altieri as Frieda.
- The children’s choir on the songs ‘Christmas Time is Here’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, and when the kids shout ‘Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown’, was performed by members of the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California.
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Four More Photographs of the York Floods
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Robin Soderling Retires from Tennis
And finally, in a piece of news that offers sad respite from this week’s Christmas-themed Cultureteca, on Wednesday Robin Soderling announced his retirement from tennis. The Swedish former world number 4 has suffered from glandular fever since 2011, last playing competitively that July, when he beat Spain’s David Ferrer to win the Swedish Open in Bastad. In a letter published on the site Tennis.se, Soderling wrote:
‘A few weeks before the Swedish Open in Bastad in 2011 I became ill with glandular fever. Since I was not aware of the seriousness of this, I made the mistake of continuing to train and compete with the virus in my body, which resulted in a sharp overtraining syndrome. I have since struggled to recover completely from this. With the disease it has been impossible for me to train one hundred percent and I was forced to rest after any physical effort. In some periods I felt so bad that I was completely bed-ridden.
This past year, however, my health improved and I have been able to increase my exercise levels, but my recovery after exercise is unfortunately still not as I would like. Playing competitions that require physical exertion over an extended period has therefore been excluded. In all these years I have believed that I would be able to get back to the world elite in tennis, but now I’ve realised that I will not be healthy enough and that I won’t be able to play at the level I demand of myself. For this reason I have decided to end my career as a professional tennis player.’
Working with a new coach in Magnus Norman, 2009 and 2010 proved Soderling’s best years on the tennis circuit, before injury and illness restricted him to just fourteen tournaments in 2011, ultimately curtailing his career. His greatest successes came at the French Open, where he was the finalist twice in a row. In the fourth round in 2009, he became the first man on the clay of Roland Garros to beat Rafael Nadal, eventually succumbing in the final to Roger Federer. And in 2010 he managed to repeat that level of performance, this time overcoming Federer in the quarter-finals before losing in the final to Nadal.
Soderling also reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, and twice at the US Open. In total he won ten ATP singles titles, including the 2010 Paris Masters. A fantastic player in his own right, with his powerful flat hitting style especially dangerous on clay and carpet, he will go down in tennis history for his role at the French in 2009, his win over Nadal regarded as one of the greatest upsets in the sport, while his loss to Federer allowed the Swiss champion to capture a career Grand Slam.
Perhaps in a pop-cultural context he will also be remembered for his five-set defeat against Nadal at Wimbledon in 2007, where an irritable exchange between the players resulted in Soderling mocking Nadal’s manner of tugging at his shorts. Beyond its humour, the incident shows something of Soderling’s competitive bravado, a quality the intimidating Nadal rarely came up against in his youthful prime.
Still only thirty-one years old, Soderling has worked to establish RS-Tennis, a company bearing his initials which manufactures tennis balls and other tennis equipment. Already with sales in more than forty countries, he plans to devote his energy to the company in his competitive retirement, while also spending more time with his partner and two kids.