The Calendar, Father Christmas and the Three Kings
Christmas is celebrated in many different ways around the world and at different times. The town of Bethlehem celebrates Christmas no fewer than three times: on December 25th, on January 6th and on January 19th. The reason for this is that the Church of the Nativity (right) is administered by jointly by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, each with the celebration on a different date, due to the combination of different traditions and the use of the Julian or Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar is now shifted by a full thirteen days with respect to the Gregorian calendar so, while Catholics celebrate Epiphany and the arrival of the Kings in Bethlehem on January 6th, bringing their presents to the baby Jesus, for the Armenian Church, Epiphany does not arrive until January 19th.
The reason why the Julian calendar is so badly offset is down to the way that Leap Years are added in the respective calendars. While the Julian calendar, introduced by order of Julian Caesar on January 1st 45BC, was a vast improvement on the original Roman calendar, which was based on the lunar month and had 355 days. In theory, every three years an extra month had to be added to correct the calendar but, as this was a political decision, it was rarely done systematically. Responsibility for adding the extra month fell on the Pontifex Maximus. If the Pontifex did not like the year’s elected officials, he would hardly want to extend their mandate by an extra month so, as a result, more often than not, the extra month was not added and the calendar got more and more out of step with the seasons to the point that, in 46BC, it was already three months out of synch. Julius Caesar may have been a ruthless dictator with ambitions of becoming emperor, as some accused him, but he accepted advice from experts, when appropriate and acted on it. In this case he went to Greek astronomers such as Sosigenes of Alexandria. Greek astronomers knew that the length of the year was 365.25 days so, the Julian calendar added a Leap Day every fourth year: no excuses, EVERY fourth year.
However, what Julius Caesar did not know was that “his” calendar was over-correcting: it added too many Leap Days. The year is 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 46 seconds. So, it was adding 11 minutes 14 seconds too many each year. In other words, one day too many was added every 128 years. Hence, in 1582, with the slip at ten days, Pope Gregory issued his Papal Bull, “Inter gravissimas”, correcting the calendar. A few decades before, the business of aligning the year had started too. Although the Roman year started on January 1st, by medieval times different countries had a variety of different dates for the New Year. Some used December 25th. Some used March 25th. And some, used Easter. At the same time, the Orthodox Church used September 1st and the Ottoman Empire used March 1st.
What Pope Gregory realised in that the extra Leap Years had to be removed. This was done by the simple expedient of making century years Leap Years only if divisible by 400 (i.e. 2000 was a Leap Year, but 1800 and 1900, no). This does synchronise the calendar almost perfectly and the synchronisation would be well-nigh perfect if he had added a further correction such that millennial years are only Leap Years if divisible by 4000: thus 2000 should *not* have been a Leap Year, nor should 3000, but 4000AD, yes.
Similarly, in 1544, the Holy Roman Empire shifted New Year to January 1st. Initially, other countries were slow to follow but, by 1600, most of Europe had followed the move, although many of these countries still used the Julian calendar. For example, Lorraine switched to January 1st as New Year in 1579, but did not adopted the Gregorian calendar until 1760. Scotland moved New Year (Hogmanay) to January 1st in 1600, but stayed on the Julian calendar until 1752, long after the Act of Union that created the United Kingdom. In that year the British Empire made the double move to January 1st as New Year and to the Gregorian calendar. The last countries to make the move to the Gregorian calendar were the Ottoman Empire (now, Turkey) in 1917 and Serbia and the Russian Empire, in 1918.
Hereby lies the key to Bethlehem’s strange, triple Christmas. Although Russia uses the Gregorian calendar, the Orthodox Church still uses the Julian. So, when the Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany, it does so, not on January 6th, but on January 19th! Hence the triple celebration in Bethlehem.
There are, of course, many Christmas traditions around the world, but they break in two broad classes: those who celebrate the Nativity on December 24/25th and those who celebrate the Epiphany on January 5/6th. In the former, a certain rotund gentleman, dressed in red, who climbs down the chimney to leave presents, tends to feature widely. In the latter, it is the three Kings of Orient, on their camels who, by means unknown, enter houses with presents. There are, of course, multiple variants. For many Catholics, presents also arrive during the night of December 24th, but these are left by the Virgin as she passes over homes.
Over the years, the increasing presence of Father Christmas, Papa Noël, Saint Nicholas, Père Noël, or, (in Chinese) Sheng dan lao ren, has created tension in countries that follow the Hispanic tradition of celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings on the evening of January 5th, who leave the presents that children find on the morning of Epiphany. It leads to accusations that Father Christmas is supplanting the local traditions. I have heard Father Christmas denounced in Spain as “a foreign person about whom we know little”. One possible reason for this hostility is the widespread myth that Father Christmas was a commercial invention of certain company famous for its cola drink. As it turns out, he was not originally a commercial device and dates back, not fifty or a hundred years, but right back to the early Christian church.
The origins of Christmas and many of our Christmas traditions, as we have explored in the past, are often curious and, simultaneously, both older and more recent than we believe. In many senses, the way that we celebrate Christmas today would have been familiar to a Celt in 1000BC, or to a Roman who was celebrating Saturnalia. This last causes some confusion because, for several centuries, the Roman mid-winter festival was called Saturnalia, or Saturnales and the day of Sigilaria (December 19th) was when presents were given. The celebration lapsed to a large degree in the 3rd Century AD and was restored by the decree of Emperor Aurelius in 274 AD. After fifty years without celebrating the cult of the Sun, he set this day as the celebration of Sol Invictus and this replaced Saturnalia as the big Roman celebration. The shift of the Julian calendar had moved the day of the Winter Solstice to December 25th, coinciding with the Christian Nativity.
However, although we have evidence that Christmas was celebrated as early as 354AD, Origen of Alexandria (184/185-253/254), theologist and early Christian philosopher wrote, based on Old Testament beliefs, that
Only a sinner celebrates his own birthday
The extension of this belief between Christians that celebrating a birthday was a pagan practice makes us believe that until the mid-3rd Century Christmas Day was not celebrated, even though Epiphany was and, from here, the origins of the Christmas Day/Epiphany celebration split. The change in the way Christmas Day (literally, the Day of the Mass of Christ) was seen seems to have come from Emperor Constantine I, although a Christian, was also a great admirer of the Sun and decreed that dies solis – the Day of the Sun – should henceforth be a day of rest. The date became so important that in one of his Christmas sermons, Augustine of Hippo (St Augustine, 354-430 AD) declared:
We celebrate this day as a holiday, not in the name of the Sun, worshiped by its believers as much as by us, but in the name of he who created the Sun.
Over the years, the Day of the Sun became, progressively, the Day of the Son as the Christian church adapted the pagan festival to its ends.
What about the idea that Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus – an adaptation of the Dutch, Sinterklaas – is a modern invention that has supplanted the Three Kings of Orient? Here, as in so many places, things are not quite clear and are open to interpretation.
Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, is based on Saint Nicholas. This also explains why, in some countries, the person who we identify with Saint Nicholas comes on December 6th, which is his Saint’s Day. Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra (Μύρα, now Demre, in Turkey) in Asia Minor. By tradition, he lived from March 15th 270AD to December 6th 343AD but, like many early dates, these are uncertain and may have been modified later for political ends. He became famous for his generosity and his presents, hence the tradition of associating him with the giving of gifts. The tradition of calling him “Father Christmas” instead of “Saint Nicholas” seems relatively recent though, with the traditional figure of the Father Christmas bringing gifts to children appearing towards the end of the 19th Century, although the red-suited personification of Christmas had existed for at least five centuries beforehand.
Of course, the Magi themselves figure prominently in Matthew’s version of the Nativity (but not in Luke’s). It is interesting, given the strong Armenian connection with the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, that the original Magi mentioned by Roman historians were from Northern Persia and Armenia: this seems to me to be more than a coincidence. They brought gifts to the infant Jesus, hence the tradition of giving gifts at Epiphany. It is also typical of the way that Christmas traditions have become adapted and confused that, in the protestant world, people grow up associating the visit of the Magi with the day of the Nativity and, in the Catholic, with Epiphany. What we do not know is exactly when the tradition of giving presents to commemorate the Magi started. An image from a 3rd Century sarcophagus from Rome, held in the Vatican Museum – one of the earliest Nativity scenes that survives – we see the three Magi in Persian dress, offering their gifts below a star, but the giving and receiving of presents in their name seems to date from much later.
As we have seen, the conversion of the Magi into the Kings of Orient is more recent still, dating from the Church’s re-assessment of the Nativity in the 6th Century and, even more, the grave challenges posed to its existence by the expansion of Islam. The names of the three Kings of Orient – Melchior, Gaspar and Baltasar – is later still, dating from the 8th Century, with the names not entering popular usage until the end of the 1st Millennium AD and reflects the Church’s desire to show that Jesus represented the three known races of the Earth: Asiatic, European and African.
So, as we see, the tradition of celebrating Christmas, giving presents and the date(s) that it is done are a mixture of many traditions, old and new and… of a lot of confusion with the calendar over the centuries. However, whichever tradition you follow, whichever day you celebrate and howsoever you celebrate it, enjoy it and reflect on the very varied origins of the traditions that you are following and the many historical figures involved in giving us Christmas Day on December 25th.