Peace on earth to all of good will
I once remarked to a reporting technician: ‘if we suppose we commence our time measuring at the birth of Jesus Christ, why then are Christmas and New Year not on the same day?’
To which he replied: ‘rounding errors.’
In our family we are decidedly “Christmas people“. For it becomes clear, often when jobs force you to choose, what kind of family you are. Either you are “New Year folk” or you are “Christmas people”. It may surprise you that I, an atheist, care more about Christmas than about New Year. Which is obviously the more secular of the two holidays. This becomes even stranger when one considers my life is very much ‘number-oriented’, seeing as I shovel ‘Data’ for a living and New Year is undeniably a ‘number-oriented’ holiday. We have found a way to divide the length of time it takes our planet to circle the sun into units and need only a couple of leap –days, -minutes, -seconds to keep our unit-scale and the physical world in-sync. This is a very impressive feat if not even more so an incredibly useful one. Units convert time into numbers, which can be added subtracted and counted down from, as in ‘ten!…nine!.. eight!..’.
But that a lot of atheists care for religious traditions and some even ‘belief in belief’ is to me less of a mystery than the fact that between Christmas and New Year there is such an obvious issue that it baffles me not more people mention this. Both Bible-totting theists as well as some of my fellow historians add such confidence and ‘gravitas’ to what they say, as if there is no doubt to the two thousand years old truths they tell. And yet the time between Christmas and New Year should inoculate us against taking all these ‘truths’ so literal or at least against assuming them to be as simple as they are conveyed to us. We are told that in the West, following the Christian tradition, we start our timeline at the birth of Jesus Christ and subsequently we are told –some- things about Jesus in incredible detail. This suggests incredible mastery of our own past. Which is why it surprises me that not more people question why Christmas and New Year do not coincide. Ok, I admit that likely a lot of adults realize that the story of our calendar and the “birth of Jesus” is much more complex than this, but seeing as there are people who think the moon is hollow it is clear such nuanced-thinking is not for everyone. And yet if you google it, there is no-one claiming the U.S. government conspired to have Christmas split from New Year or that they moved
New Year in order to pretend we don’t start the calendar at Jesus’ birth. Considering all the things the U.S. government is accused of having puppet-mastered this is very surprising I think. It is almost as if everyone finds it logical that (counting back) it seems we started our timeline exactly six days after Jesus’ birth. What was so special about that day that it trumped the supposed birth of the “savior-of-all-mankind”!?
But off course anyone with a little knowledge understands that the story is not that simple. Just look at how the 11th month of our oh-so sterile time-division actually translates to ‘Ninth’ and ‘December’ actually comes from the Latin term for ‘10’. This at least indicates how mutated even such a quantitative system has become in two thousand years. But still theists maintain that there’s no noise in the qualitative prose-system that ‘preserved’ our much revered religious ‘inerrant’ documents.
As different as Christmas and New Years seem, with the one being about tradition and lights and about a child being born while the other is about a quantity of time that is counted down to zero, they’re really not all that different. Only a cursory glance at the closest Muslim holiday will tell you this. For all their differences Christmas for instance has the exact same frequency as New Year, which is not the case for either Buddhist or Muslim festivities. This is because Christmas is tied to ‘birthday-’ and ‘anniversary-’ concepts which are by definition linked to the passing of a year. And, global warming aside, close linkage to the Earths circling around the sun is also the reason why Christmas is specifically linked (in the Northern hemisphere) with Winter-weather. Think of the songs, the Christmas cards, the Santa Claus mythology. In contrast Ramadan is a holiday that can mandate fasting for between six to sixteen hours a day, seeing as it takes place in different seasons in different decades.
But lest you think Christmas became linked to the seasons as a result of modern time keeping the link of Christianity to the weather is much more direct. For in essence it is a religion that in the course of a year celebrates death, resurrection and rebirth of the same ‘person’ over and over again, which is basically a trait of many religions (specifically tied to farming cultures) from the Neolithic onward. As soon as we gave our fate to ‘agriculture’ with its high-risk high-reward paradigm we became very superstitious about the weather, crops and the disappearance and reappearance of sunlight. Festivities surrounding light and rebirth are just coping mechanisms really. Given by contrast Islam is more centered in historic nomadic culture it shouldn’t surprise us that the relation with the seasons is less profound.
It’s because of the historical link of Christmas with agriculture that I have no issue with celebrating it. IPads can be enjoyed but they can’t be eaten. We don’t celebrate the birth of a mythical god, we celebrate the birth of all children born that year. Even though they are always too numerous for our own good, without them humanity would just end, period. By celebrating our newborns, the rebirth of mankind, we also bring back a little humanity into ourselves. Because we aren’t fit to always do good, to always be emphatic or even to always desire peace. But we shouldn’t throw ourselves out with the bathwater. Christmas if nothing else, can be a time to renew not only our soil but also ourselves, to soak ourselves in tradition and to come out a little less cynical if only for a while. And, if you truly need a secular reason, let it be then that in 1914 the idea of Christmas made a couple of thousand men decide NOT to kill each other in Flanders Fields for a couple of days (which by itself is worth at least ten ‘thanksgivings’ in lives saved I’d say).
But in case I have emphasized the difference of Christmas with New Year we mustn’t forget that, even if New Year is a numbers-holiday, Christianity is at least as much a numbers-religion. Take out the number-symbolism and it comes apart at the seams. Worse still, it is meaningless, superstitious number-symbolism that contains about as much meaning and fact as your ever-changing ‘lucky number’. In fact without New Year we wouldn’t even know when to celebrate Christmas. And yes I do know that Christmas is as much linked to the Winter-solstice, the shortest day on the Northern hemisphere. But the solstice is not a good timer to celebrate Christmas by really seeing as in actuality that is four days earlier, or in data-terms: off by more than 1%, and that in any report is a really big ‘no-no’.
But perhaps I’m a Christmas-person BECAUSE I’m a numbers guy. Because if you are a numbers-autist, which a lot of people are to some degree, New Year is a very different holiday each year. The new millennium -2000- stands out off course, but there is also 2011, which is prime and depending whether you like or dislike prime numbers means a totally different year for you. -2015- Was fine for me, because I happen to like multitudes of five. -2016- is still okay, both because it is an even number as well as because ‘16’ is a safe number with solid ‘4 and 8’ divisors. This has nothing at all to do with any expectation for the year ahead apart from the obligation to having to constantly use a number you personally don’t like. This also is reflected in the events, -2015- turned out to be a ‘dog of a year’ for me despite the likeable number in every date on the calendar. And while we are happy to leave the bad times behind us, New Year makes it obvious we can’t go back to the good times either. As such New Year is a constant exercise in pushing away the melancholy of another seemingly wasted year. In contrast
Christmas seems to exist in a cyclical universe where the good can be relived, the bad is basically ignored and which is free from both irritant numbers as well as the fleeting of Time, our only resource.
Still, whatever your preference, if there is anything we should be grateful for it is that Christmas is not celebrated at the Winter-solstice or that there was a ‘rounding error’ between Christmas and New Year, because it gives us not a day, but in actuality an entire week in which nothing extraordinary can reasonably be demanded of us, and sometimes that is all it takes: to be left alone, peace, on earth, for all of good will.
Happy New Year everyone!