The 2020 Winter Solstice arrived in on December 21 at 5:02 am EST. So saith the Farmer’s Almanac.
So ’tis a perfect day to talk about the real “reason for the season.”
Here’s the real first Christmas question: Why all the fuss over December 25?
For starters, the Gospels never mention a precise date or even a season for the birth of Jesus. How then did we settle on December 25 and all those festive lights?
If a bright light just went off in your head, you’re getting warm. It’s largely about the Sun.
In ancient times, a popular Roman festival celebrated Saturnalia, a Thanksgiving-like holiday marking the winter solstice and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Saturnalia began on December 17th and while it only lasted two days at first, it was eventually extended into a weeklong period that lost its agricultural significance and simply became a time of general merriment. Even slaves were given temporary freedom to do as they pleased, while the Romans feasted, visited one another, lit candles and gave gifts. Later it was changed to honor the official Roman Sun god known as Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) and the solstice fell on December 25.
Two other important pagan gods popular in ancient Rome were also celebrated around this date. The Roman were big on adopting the gods of the people they conquered. Mithra, a Persian god of light who was first popular among Roman soldiers, acquired a large cult in ancient Rome. The birth of Attis, another agricultural god from Asia Minor, was also celebrated on December 25. Attis dies but is brought back to life by his lover, a goddess whose temple later became the site of an important basilica honoring the Virgin Mary. By the way, the symbol of Attis was a pine tree.
In northern Europe, the solstice was celebrated with the burning of the “Yule” log. “Yule” meant wheel. It was the wheel of the chariot of Odin bringing the sun -a dead god being revived- back to life.
Candles. Gift giving. Pine trees. Dying gods brought back to life. Hmmm. Sound familiar?
All the similarities between Saturnalia and these other Roman holidays and the celebration of Christmas are no coincidence. In the fourth century, Pope Julius 1 assigned December 25 as the day to celebrate the Mass of Christ’s birth –Christ’s mass. This was a clever marketing ploy that conveniently sidestepped the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while converting the population.
As Christianity moved into northern Europe, the Norse myths were also repurposed to tell the Christ story.
There is a scholarly argument that the December 25 date was marked earlier in some Christian communities, as argued by Yale Divinity school Dean Andrew McGowan. But the official recognition by the Pope cemented the date for many Christians. In other Christian communities, January 6 — the Epiphany or the day the magi visited the infant Jesus– was considered more significant. The period between these dates also accounts for the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Other authorities disagree and say that December date was arrived at by adding nine months to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day of Jesus’s miraculous conception.
But most modern Christmas traditions reflect the merger of pagan rituals, beliefs, and traditions with Christianity. The early church fathers knew that they couldn’t convert people without allowing them to keep some of their ancient festivals and rituals so they would allow them if they could be connected to Christianity.
The importance of the winter solstice, then, is crucial to understanding many of the other traditions of this season. Evergreen trees, mistletoe, holly, and Yule logs all relate back to pre-Christian practices and symbols that celebrate the return of light and life after the Solstice. That’s why the Puritans rejected Christmas celebrations under Cromwell and in the Massachusetts colony in 1659. (Read my post Who Started the War on Christmas?“)
While we are talking about dates, the precise year of the birth of Jesus is also a mystery. The dating system we use is based on a system devised by a monk around 1500 years ago and is seriously flawed. The historical King Herod who ordered the massacre of the innocents died in 4 BC (or BCE, Before the Common Era). The “census” ordered by Emperor Augustine is not recorded in Roman history, but a local census did take place in the Roman province of Judea in 6 AD (or CE, the Common Era). Is that all perfectly clear now?
You can read more about the mythic roots of Christmas and the gospel accounts of Jesus in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and Don’t Know Much About® the Bible.
“These are the times that try men’s souls…. Tyranny, like hell is not easily conquered.”
–Thomas Paine, The American Crisis (December 19, 1776)
Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
-Thomas Paine Common Sense
Thomas Paine’s essay Common Sense is widely credited with helping to rouse Americans to the patriot cause. Its sales were extraordinary at the time; given today’s American population, current day sales would reach some 60 million copies.
The pamphleteering Paine is best known for Common Sense and The Crisis — first published on December 19 1776 — among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and later went to France, then in the throes of its Revolution.
Paine was caught up in the complex politics of the bloody Revolution there, eventually winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine. After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release.
“Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator…In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
This was a serious case of bridge-burning and Paine swiftly fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible.
In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
After returning to the United States, which owed so much to him, Paine was regarded as an atheist and was abandoned by most of his friends and former allies. He died in disgrace, an outcast from the United States he had helped create. The Quaker church he had rejected refused to bury him after he died in Greenwich Village (New York City) in 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. A handful of people attended his funeral.
An admirer brought this remains back to England for reburial there, but they were lost.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
More than two thousand years ago, some Greek men gathered on a hill in Athens, raised their hands, and changed the world.
Listen to a quick history of “people power” and the threat posed to democracy by a Strongman.
This Thanksgiving is different. Home alone? Here’s something to read.
Like the Macy’s parade –except this year– this is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday that appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.
The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.
The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.
Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Enjoy them both.
This year is the 400th Anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts and the signing of the Mayflower Compact. I serve up a helping of Thanksgiving History in my new Don’t Know Much About® AudioMinutes
For more on the history of the holiday, read my article, “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (New York Times, November 25, 2014)
And here is another piece of America’s Hidden History —“A French Connection.” The story of the real first Pilgrims in the future United States. They were French in Florida, fifty years before the Mayflower sailed.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux.
–“A French Connection” (November 25, 2008)
Yesterday, November 11th, was Veterans Day – a holiday on which we honor service and sacrifice.
Two World War I veterans, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, deserve no such honors. But we must still recognize the consequences of war. Listen to this quick lesson.
You can read and listen to more of my history of Veterans Day here.
And read more about these two men and the impact of World War I in the rise of other dictators in Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy
Publishers Weekly has given Strongman a Starred Review:
This captivating history of five depraved “strongmen” offers a timely warning about the need to protect democracy. Davis (In the Shadow of Liberty) provides absorbing, clearly distilled biographies of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin, as well as profiles of their respective dictatorships and atrocities.
Read the full Publishers Weekly Starred review here.
During World War I, the poem “In Flanders Fields” inspired the use of the poppy as the symbol of loss and remembrance on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Read these posts for more about Veterans Day and about the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
What symbol, what icon, should we use to mark the tragic losses in the Covid pandemic — losses more deadly than war?
One of the most famous symbols of the sacrifice and loss we mark on Memorial Day and Veterans Day is the Poppy, inspired by this World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by John McCrae.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
“Soon after writing “In Flanders Field,” McCrae was transferred to a hospital in France, where he was named the chief of medical services. Saddened and disillusioned by the war, McCrae found respite in writing letters and poetry, and wrote his final poem, “The Anxious Dead.”
In the summer of 1917, McCrae’s health took a turn, and he began suffering from severe asthma attacks and bronchitis. McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918.” (Poets.org)
Inspired by McCrae’s poem, an American woman, Moina Michael originated the idea of wearing red poppies to honor the war dead. She sold poppies with the money going to benefit servicemen, and the movement caught on, spreading to Europe as well. In 1948, Moina Michael was honored for founding the Poppy Movement with a red 3 cent postage stamp.
“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
(This is a revised version of a post originally written for Veterans Day in 2011. The meaning still applies.)
On Veterans Day, a reminder of what the day once meant and what it should still mean.
That was the moment at which World War I –then called THE GREAT WAR– largely came to end in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice –or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations — that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The formal end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
Today, it is important to recognize the role of that treaty and the war in the rise of some of the most murderous dictators in history. That history is told in my new book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy.
Besides the war casualties, an estimated 100 million people died during the war of the Spanish flu, a worldwide pandemic that was completely linked to the war and had an impact on its outcome. That is the subject of my recent book, More Deadly Than War:The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.
The date of November 11th became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations –a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November 11th as a day of remembrance:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
Of course, the hopes that “the war to end all wars” would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called “the Great War” would become World War I. With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America’s conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November, but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional November 11th date).
Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America’s nearly 25 million veterans of all wars, unlike Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died fighting in America’s wars.
We should remember and celebrate all those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history –the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926:
to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …
inviting the people of the United States to observe the day … with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
The Library of Congress offers an extensive Veterans History Project.
Read more about World War I and all of America’s conflicts in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
I discuss the role of Americans in battle in more than 240 years of American history in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette Books and Random House Audio).
MORE DEADLY THAN WAR: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War was published in May 2018.