Monday, December 21, 2015

Dates of Things

The Julian Calendar, the longest-lasting civil influence of a troublesome Imperator-General, was a marked improvement over the previous system, under which an intercalary month would be, on occasion, specifially declared by fiat, the Republic Officer in charge being titled Pontifex Maximus. As the last such Pontifex Maximus, Gaius Julius had grown tired of the corrupting pressure on a PM who might be bought off with a cut of profits from bills due in the new year, and of the antinomian tendency stirred up by an official State Calendar which was blatantly four months out of sync with the Sun. The switch to prescribed Leap-Years, intercalating but a single day at any time (doubling the ante-diem sextius Calendas Martiis), was stroke in favour of Republican Liberty, Rule of Law, and Sensible Scheduling.

It was, I repeat, a marked improvement. And it was just good enough to get into trouble.

How good? The Julian cycle was a bit less than one day too long every Hundred years. That is: it was just long enough to start going measurably wrong, on average, just as soon as everyone who was used to the start of it was dead. If the error had been just a bit greater, corrections could have been made much sooner. Had the error (by some Astronomical fortuity) been smaller, well, so much the better!

But it was what it was, which has some curious consequences for the Catholic Church, and our current Calendar of Feasts, movable and otherwise.

Much is made, as it happens, of the apparent confluence of Christmas (25th December) and Satyrnalia (Winter Solstice (though no-one really announces Satyrnalia anymore...)). I'm sure we're all quite bored with that. The point, however, is: it was part of the business of an early post-Milvian Council to confirm the schedules for celebrating both Christmas and Easter, and there is an important difference between these schedules: Christmas is fixed to a Solar Date, and Easter is fixed to a Sunday around a Lunisolar Date. The curious circumstance between the scheduling decisions is that: In the First Year of Our Lord, the Winter Solstice fell about 25th of December, the vernal equinox about the 25th of March; and by the time of the relevant Coucil, Julian's Error had stretched the calendar about three or four days late, the actual equinox and solstice falling therefore about three or four days earlier than on paper. And so the interesting decision was: to confirm the Solar Date of Christmas, now out of sync with Solstice and Satyrs, and to adopt the Present equinox date of 21st March, for the calculation of Easter.

That is, while Easter was already a Movable Feast and its motion could be re-regulated to the Sun without causing any hassle, the Calendar Date of Christmas was considered Too Important to adjust it to the Solstice as well.

This indicates (quite stongly, I think) that the Date of Christmas was a Very Old and Important Tradition indeed, having its roots in a period well before there was any risk of paganising syncretism in the Church, or schemes to capture the hearts of specifically-roman pagans with a great feast to cover their own... um... friskier... feast.

There are other external indications towards this quite reasonable supposition that Our Lord really was born on Christmas Day, but I do so enjoy an internal logic argument about Things.


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