December seems to be all about the few days of Christmas, especially in 2020 when we will be placing so much stock on a few days of relaxation from the tiered lockdown rules. Yet, there are probably very few people who think that 25 December is really Christ’s birthday – so why was it chosen?

It was the Romans, of course!  25th December was only settled on in the fourth century, when the newly converted Emperor Constantine sought to unite church and state with a common creed and interpretation of Christianity. He assembled The Council of Nicaea, held in what is now modern Turkey to determine the key tenets and dates of Christianity.

Mid-winter and the solstice

Choosing 25th December had the advantage of coinciding with the existing midwinter festivals.  It fitted in well because that time of year was a hiatus in the daily grind of agriculture, allowing time for contemplation and celebration. After all, surely the best thing about the depths of winter and the shortest day is that a corner is being turned. The days are going to start getting longer and warmer again but, before the hard work in the fields started again, people partied!

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, for the Roman god of agriculture. The Persians paid tribute to Mithras, the God of Light in mid-winter. Here in Britain, we shared the Norse and northern European tradition of Yule: cutting and burning a giant yule log chosen because it would be big enough to last through 12 days – later known as the 12 days of Christmas. Druids and other pagans focussed on the harmony with the rhythms of the natural world as the longest nights of the year passed.

 These ancient festivals were actually centred on the shortest day, which falls between 20 and 23 December. This year (2020) it happens to fall on 21 December, the day we tend to think of as midwinter’s day.

The precise moment of the winter Solstice in our hemisphere is when the North Pole is furthest for the sun, and the pale winter sun is as far south and low on the horizon as it will be all year.  The Solstice happens for everyone at the same time, and it will be at 10:02 AM UTC (GMT) in 2020. Then, the sun will be directly over the tropic of Capricorn. By 10:03, we will be observing it further north in the sky.

Just how short is the shortest day?  Bournemouth, where Deacon is based, will get just under 8 hours of daytime. Up in John O’Groats, the residents’ shortest day will be less than 6 hours 17 minutes and in Britain’s most northerly town, Lerwick on the Shetland Isles, a day of just 5 hours 49 minutes might hardly seem worth getting out of bed for!

… It’s Christmas!

While it’s Christmas Day itself that dominates the month, many of us will have been preparing throughout December with Advent.  The traditional wreath has four candles, one for each week of Advent and symbolizing hope, love, joy and peace. Families may gather around the wreath each Sunday to sing carols and light another candle and in Germany Stollen cake is a treat to enjoy on these evenings.

December will also be seeing the Jewish faith celebrating Hanukkah, the festival of lights. Across the world the Chanukah candelabra (menorah) will have been a familiar a sight in windows across the country, one more being lit each day, starting on from December 10th in 2020.  The festival, which celebrates the survival of Judaism, is observed by lighting the candles of a menorah (or Hanukkiah). One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, it is the Feast of St Nicholas on 6th December, and not Christmas day on the 25th, that have traditionally been the main present-giving day. Children will have left shoes or stockings out in the hope they will be filled with presents during the night.

The legend of Santa Claus wanting to know if children have been “naughty or nice” may have sprung from Krampusnacht, the night before St Nicholas’ feast.  Krampus, according to folklore across much of Europe appears with twigs or lumps of coal for naughty children, instead of the toys that good children get from St Nicholas.   Krampus may soon be supplanted by the modern folklore heroes, the elves on the shelf who keeping an eye on children’s’ behaviour throughout December and report back to Santa. {LINK TO OUR BLOG}

Stay safe, stay warm

All year, we’ve been encouraged to stay home – and that’s certainly a restriction that’s easier to adhere to in the chill of December. However, although we think of the month as mid-winter, it is not the worst weather offender!  The coldest and snowiest weather is usually brought by the ‘newcomer’ months of January and February. They did not even exist in the early Roman calendar which began in March and ended with the tenth month, December. The 60 days of winter were simply left out as irrelevant. As Rome became about so much more than agricultural cycles, it switched to a calendar that followed the solar year and the missing days were recognised with two new months:  Ianuarius and Februarius.

All the same December lets us down by having the least sunshine, but with so few daylight hours that is not surprising, and old wives keep a close eye on conditions.  A harsh December is said to herald a warm spring while a gentle December weather is a sign of a cold snap to follow.

We’ll hope for the best all round. It’s been a strange year and surely we all deserve to see it out with a happy December festival. Whatever form that takes for you, the Christmas message of peace and goodwill surely has resonance for all of us?



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