*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 25th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A very merry Christmas to you and yours whether I am coming to you in your car, in your earbuds, by yourself, with others, etc.… and of course, while we make these shows daily, you don’t necessarily listen to them daily. Thus I might be wishing you a Merry Christmas in July of 22 or 2050 from beyond the grave…. Weird.
And suppose you listen to this show with some regularity, or have had me in a fall semester, or listened to my old podcast. In that case, you know that I am the self-styled dean of December, the poinsettia professor, the teacher of trimming trees and other traditions, the sage of sleigh bells, Santa and snow, the…. You get the idea. One date on the calendar rules them all.
[Now, I don’t care for the “Christmas or easter?” debate I come across sometimes in Christian circles. The death and resurrection of Jesus is significant because Jesus was born of the Virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, etc.…no need to pit these days against each other]
But, Easter is a moveable feast. We’ve talked plenty about that on this show- the council of Nicea being called in 325 in part on account of getting a universal date for Easter. But Christmas is not. It is always the 25th of December. It is always at the end of the year (it is, of course, not always cold, and in the southern hemisphere, it’s summer).
And being a fixed, memorable, and important date has given Christmas Day a unique place- even more revered than other holidays. And it seems that history bears this out.
I want to run through a few of the most famous and essential Christmases of all time on today's show.
The first Christmas celebrated on the 25th of December was likely in 336. Christian theologians believed that the world was created on March 25th- and that this was also the date when Jesus was conceived (oh, it’s tricky stuff, but it’s what they did). If he had been conceived on the 25th of March, his birthday would have been December 25th. Also, there was a pagan festival once favored by Constantine that was celebrated around then, so Christians reappropriated the pagan festival for the celebration of the nativity.
For most of the world, people weren’t sure what day it was throughout most of history. We now walk around with calendars and phones and everything else in our pocket- but telling the time and date is an approximation for most people who have ever lived. And thus, the “season” is usually more important than the date. But the 25th of December is the most recognizable single day on the calendar for a holiday celebrated by so many.
And so, when something momentous is happening, it would make sense to tie it to a memorable date. And it seems that many monarchs used the most memorable date (and date that one would likely be at church) for their purposes.
King Clovis was king of the Franks in the 400 and 500s was the founder of the Merovingian Dynasty- essentially the most essential kingdom in early medieval Europe. Clovis was converted to Christianity by his wife Clotilde, and on Christmas Day in 508, he was baptized, thus uniting the Roman Catholic Church and Western Europe. Thousands more were baptized with him.
The next great European king would be Charles, but not any Charles- Charles the Great or “Charlemagne.” On Christmas Day in 800, he used the Nativity celebration to have the Pope crown him as the Emperor of the Romans.
Across the English Channel and 266 years later, William the Conqueror has crowned the king of England on Christmas Day.
We know from the biblical narrative that around the time of Jesus, kings had reasons to get nervous… and maybe in light of the celebration of the one true King, these earthly kings decided to gin up a bit of pomp and circumstance for themselves.
Much is made of Washington crossing Delaware on Christmas in a surprise attack in American history. And while German mercenaries would have likely celebrated Christmas in the late 1700s, the holiday wasn’t what it is today.
But it was in 1868- and it was on Christmas Day in 1868, President Andrew Johnson gave a full pardon to all Confederate soldiers. The question of pardoning and reconstruction was hot in the years after the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Andrew Johnson did most things poorly. You can make an argument that he shouldn’t have done this (or that he could have done it differently), but without this complete and free forgiveness, who knows how even more fractured the situation could have become. And the symbolism wasn’t lost on his contemporaries that on this day of gift-giving, President Johnson was practicing a radical grace by giving pardon to former enemies of the Union.
It’s a good day for presents. It’s a good day for forgiving as well—a Merry Christmas from the Christian History Almanac and from my family to you and yours.
The Last Words for today are from Isaac Watts- this is from his Joy to the World:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth! the Saviour reigns: let men their songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
He rules the earth with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 25th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Christmases include the Holiday, the islands, the beetle, the small town in Florida, and Snow from Threes Company. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man hanging up his stockings- back to the standard format tomorrow. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.