There are twelve days of Christmas, and I’m sure if you’ve somehow managed to forget that fact over the course of the year retailers from one end of this our Great Republic to the other will forcibly refresh your memory for the next few weeks. Whether you want to or no, you will hear in great detail about lords leaping and laying ladies while pipers pipe and voyeuristic geese pay five gold rings just to watch. I’ve always wondered why just about every picture of Times Square before its current incarnation as Disney World North had a goose or two in the background. There were just too many of them for this to be some sort of odd ornithological coincidence.
But avian porn is not the subject of this screed, so let us move on before the police arrive. The subject of today’s lecture is the twelve days of Christmas and what they mean to me in five easy lessons. For the better part of the late and deeply unlamented twentieth century it was the fashion among a certain set of people to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, that the demands of Mammon were stifling the essentially religious nature of the holiday, even to the point where that great philosopher and theologian Linus Van Pelt had to explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas was all about by quoting the Gospel according to Luke. Charlie Brown did not seem impressed by this argument, falling, as it did, between commercials for Benson & Hedges cigarettes and the new 1967 Ford Mustangs.
The fact of the matter is that Christmas has always been a commercial bonanza, a state of affairs that began when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided that maybe Christianity wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Constantine came to this conclusion after he’d had a dream the night before the battle of the Milvian Bridge in which he saw a shield emblazoned with a Christian cross bearing the words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (in this sign you shall conquer). After the alarm slave went off the next morning, clocks being fairly scarce in those days, Constantine put Christian crosses on his soldiers’ shields; as the enemy army outnumbered by about four to one, Constantine figured any edge he could get was a good one; and then proceeded to march out and stomp on the competition big time.
Having won the crown in a pretty convincing fashion—Constantine didn’t have to dangle Chad over a cliff or anything—the new emperor decided to return the favor God did him and make Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Once a faith exclusively practiced by the most rejected and despised elements of Roman society, the Christian faith became the most inclusive faith in the Mediterranean world since now everyone and their Uncle Bob had to join whether they wanted to or not, everyone, that is, except Constantine himself. Unlike, for example, Marshal Feng, the twentieth century Chinese warlord who converted to Methodism and then decided that his army should come to the Lord as well, and sped up his army’s salvation by having them stand in formation while he baptized them with holy water sprayed from a fire hose, Constantine chose to exempt himself from the revival, correctly figuring that if he stayed a pagan he could go on doing all the fun stuff that pagans got to do like murdering his political opponents, seizing their property, and selling their families into slavery without this sort of thing bothering his conscience all that much. If he was still a pagan, after all, who could blame him for acting like one?
Our current holiday problem started when Constantine decided that a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus would be just the thing to make himself look good on The O’Reilly Factor. There was, however, one small problem: no one knew when Jesus was born. The Gospels simply say that the birth occurred when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. This might have been enough information in the hands of a competent archivist to pinpoint a likely date, but competent archivists were hard to find in ancient Rome due to the Roman mob’s insatiable appetite for watching overweight, middle-aged clerical types with the wife, the 2.7 kids, the dog, and a thirty year mortgage on a house in the suburbs try to stab each other to death with quill pens in the Coliseum.
Constantine, having no solid information to work with, asked the Senate and the people of Rome what they thought of July 15th as the date for Christmas. The Senate and the people of Rome, mindful of the fact that Constantine had the bad habit of feeding people who disagreed with him to lions and tigers and bears, oh my, for the entertainment of the people in the cheap seats, told Constantine that July 15th was a wonderful idea. Roman retailers, on the other hand, mindful of losing the 4th of July and Bastille Day sales, told him that while his idea was wonderful, it would be even more wonderful at some other time of the year. One clever gent who owned a shoe store on the Appian Way suggested, after giving the matter some thought, that the Emperor make December 25th the date for his new holiday.
Now it was Constantine’s turn to object. At a meeting of the Imperial Chamber of Commerce, he quite rightly pointed out that December 25th was already a holiday, the feast of Invictus Sol and his brother Herschel, the inventors of the pneumatic Roman army chariot wheel and can opener, a device upon which the good fortune of the Roman Empire did not rely in the slightest. Then Constantine had the Pope read the relevant portions of the Gospel of Luke. The Pope stumbled through the text, His Holiness being unused to reading anything longer than an address; he had come to Rome to get a job in the Post Office in Gaul and wound up as Pope for lack any other available employment; and after he finished reading Constantine asked the retailers how they proposed to get around the Gospel’s clearly pointing to a summer date for Christ’s birth. After all, first century Judean shepherds did not keep flocks of sheep out on barren hillsides by night in the middle of winter just on the off chance that a passing heavenly host with some free time on their hands would wander by belting out their rendition of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in digitally remastered stereophonic sound. Clearly, December 25th did not meet the high burden of theological and historical proof required for such an august feast day.
Then someone, possibly the shoemaker who first suggested the idea of the 25th, or maybe his twin brother—no one could really tell them apart—told the Emperor something that emperors, as a class, love to hear: he was emperor, therefore he could put the holiday anywhere he felt like putting it. And so he did, on the 25th day of December, the high burden of historical and theological proof bending slightly in deference to Constantine’s need for campaign contributions; not everyone in the Roman Empire thought that Constantine’s being emperor was such a good idea and he needed money fast; armies, then and now, don’t come cheaply.
Well, over the centuries more and more days got added to Christmas; travel was slow in those days and most people had to use oxcarts that only got twelve miles to the dry gallon of oats, despite the best efforts of the ruminant companies to meet new government mileage standards. The retailers, however, loved the ever-lengthening Christmas season and did their level best to stretch the season out even more. Matters came to a head in 800 A.D., when on the first day of Christmas the Pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor and Charlemagne discovered that he and his entourage were stuck in Rome until the end of Christmas, which occurred sometime in the middle of April. This was a major source of annoyance for Charlemagne, who wanted to go home for the holidays, and so in his third official act, the first two being an announcement that alternate side of the street parking rules were in effect and the world’s first pooper scooper law, Charlemagne decreed that Christmas would only last for twelve days.
Retailers throughout Europe objected, which seems to be a theme here, saying that a twelve day Christmas season would drive them out of business; there wasn’t enough time for the scribes to pump out advertising copy in a twelve day season. Charlemagne said, tough luck, pal, in Latin and French, and doesn't almost everything sound better in Latin and French, and then left town with the imperial crown in his luggage, as well as a couple of counterfeit Rolexes he’d bought from a Senegalese immigrant who’d set up his blanket in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The retailers, of course, did not go down without a fight. They’ve been pushing the seasonal envelope ever since Charlemagne rode Out of Town for a second place finish in the fifth race at the Roman Aqueduct. This explains why today, in our modern postindustrial information society, the official Christmas season begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and why we still have an annoying carol about the twelve days of Christmas. The unofficial Christmas season, of course, begins near the end of August. This may be why everyone is so happy when Christmas finally arrives—it means that we won’t hear about the damn day again for at least another eight months, something for which we should all shout, Hallelujah and Happy Holidays to all and to all, a good night!