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This Month in History

December is a month of bustle and shopping. Why? Of course itís Christmas but have you ever wondered why we celebrate one of our prime (religious) festivals on the fixed date, 25 December? And then, when itís all over and we have time to think, why does that other festival, Easter, leap wildly around the calendar without obvious reason? Well I will deal with Easter at its due time but the short answer, which is relevant to a lot of human affairs, is that Christmas is fixed by a solar calendar while Easter is based on the lunar calendar. The detail is not only history but has also been worth a lot of PhDs in its time.


The Romans knew that the year took just over 365 days, even though they did not know that this is the time the earth takes to go round the sun. They did know things like the longest and the shortest days etc. Our month names are based on Roman nomenclature and yes the shortest day (the winter solstice) occurs in December; unfortunately the Romans got it a bit wrong and fixed it as 25 December. Thatís also when they had their own Rio type carnival (Saturnalia) to cheer them up over the long nights.


Interestingly, some eastern branches of Christianity still celebrate Christmas on 6 January which is what 25 December would be if we still used the Roman (Julian) calendar. The west generally switched to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which corresponds much better to the seasons, in the 16th century. Characteristically, the rest of Europe adopted this calendar in 1582 but we waited until 1752 just to make sureÖ


Nothing much to do with the Church here is there? However the early Church needed to fix a liturgical calendar so that religious events could be celebrated on an annual basis. St Augustine suggested that Jesus was born on 25 December because that was nine months after the Incarnation or Annunciation (the Vernal Equinox, 25 March). It was a bit more complex than this but essentially, because Augustine was a Roman, there has been this fixed date of 25 December for the Nativity. Being the shortest day and full of darkness, it also seemed appropriate that the birth of Jesus, as the light of the world, should be celebrated then. It all became official in 336 AD in the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor.


The power of Christmas was why soldiers of both sides rose out of their trenches and fraternized, some playing football, in 1914. Many local truces took place at Christmas 1914 especially near Ypres, an area before and afterwards one of the biggest killing zones of that War. There is plenty of evidence for these truces but of course the attitude of the authorities and the bitterness of the War overcame in later years any further attempts at humanity.


Quite a lot of other things happened in December. Isaac Newton was born in 1642 and William the Conqueror was crowned on 25 December (you know the year). As well as Newton there was the arrival on the planet of Johannes Kepler and Louis Pasteur (to whom, along with Fleming and Florey) we owe our generally healthy 21st century). On 2 December 1942 Enrico Fermi fired up the worldís first nuclear reactor (in Chicago) and on 10 December 1896 Alfred Nobel died. He invented dynamite but made up for the bad side by funding the Nobel prizes. On 23 December 1947 the transistor was invented at the Bell Labs in America. Who cares? Well away with your smartphones if you donít like transistors!


On 5 December 1791 Mozart died, in 1980 John Lennon on 8 December was murdered and Puccini was born in 1858 on the 22nd.

Perhaps we should pass lightly over the births of Josef Stalin in 1879 (on the 21st), and Mao Tse Tsung in 1893 (on the 26th). That troublesome priest Thomas Beckett was murdered by Henry IIís thugs on 29 December 1170.


In 1919 (1 December) Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her place in the House of Commons. But who was the first woman to be elected? Some clues; this lady had recently been sentenced to death but was then reprieved; she received 66% of the vote in her constituency but refused to serve. Later she became the first woman in Europe to become a Cabinet Minister. Then she was imprisoned again. But who was she?


Finally, on1 December 1990 the two sides of the Channel were connected as the Eurotunnel broke through from each side.


Peter Craig
ssue 397

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