Christmas 2013: Day 7

Christmas 2013 Day 7 imageKris: “Going to watch the ball drop tonight?”

Murphy: “Maybe. Maybe not. Not as young as I used to be, you know.”

Kris: “Lightweight.”

Murphy: “I wish the bathroom scales agreed with you on that.”

Kris: “Yes, I suppose not all of us can be svelte.”

Murphy: “Modest, either.”

Kris: “You got it, flaunt it, right? So here’s your chance. Kid asked me how come New Year’s Day is where it is. For instance, you’d think it’d be on the solstice, which would make some sense as the starting point for a New Year, but it isn’t. I thought maybe a Greek classical scholar might know what gives.”

Murphy: “Well, it’s complicated, and I’m not sure I’ve got it right, but here goes.

“Back in about 46 BCE, Julius Caesar – you know, Ides of March, ‘Et tu, Brute‘, him – reformed the Roman calendar so that everyone would know what day it is, more or less automatically, without having some politically-motivated priest be in charge of telling you. Great way to get your one-year term of office extended, if you could bribe the guy in charge of the calendar into putting off the start of the new year by a few weeks or so. Caesar’s new calendar put a stop to this. It might have been part of what got him assassinated, actually.

“Caesar defined the beginning of the new year as the Kalends, or first, of the month commemorating the two-headed god Janus. Who, because he could look both forwards and backwards, was a great symbol for beginnings and endings. So January is Janus’s month.”

Kris: “Which does not begin on the winter solstice?”

Murphy: “No, it doesn’t. Caesar’s calendar, like the one we use today, was based on the solar year, but the Romans, like many ancient peoples, had reckoned months on the basis of the cycles of the moon. So the Kalends of January were, prior to Caesar’s calendar, reckoned, so far as I can tell, as the first new moon after the winter solstice. Which the Romans thought took place on December 25th.”

Kris: “And you’re going to tell me that’s not a coincidence.”

Murphy: “Correct. Remember, none of the birth stories of Jesus of Nazareth is forthcoming enough to cite the actual birthday – not Matthew’s gospel, nor Luke’s, nor that of James. Apparently, none of the witnesses to Jesus’s life either remembered the date or considered it important. So the early church founders had to guess – and why not guess a date like the winter solstice, which folk will remember and associate with parties? If it weren’t for pedants with telescopes, we might still be celebrating Christmas on the solstice.

“Anyway. I can only guess that the new moon was eight days after the solstice when Julius Caesar put forth his calendar and decreed 1 January as New Year’s Day.”

Kris: “And how come the date appears to us today as, basically, arbitrary.”

Murphy: “Well, yes, but not arbitrary to everybody. Besides those of us who study the Classics, that is.”

Kris: “Oh?”

Murphy: “Well, you remember, Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish male. And for a Jewish male, the eighth day after birth is rather important.”

Kris: “Wait … the bris …?”

Murphy: “Indeed. So New Year’s Day, the eighth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Circumcision.”

Kris: “Oy. When did you say the Rose Bowl parade comes on again …?”

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