Newton’s birthday and the “war on Christmas”

Lately on Twitter I’ve noticed complaints from a number of conservatives about people who celebrate Isaac Newton’s birthday on December 25. It’s a tactic of the War on Christmas, they tell us, to claim he was born on the 25th. If so, then all of England was waging this war during his lifetime.

The case against regarding December 25 as his birthday is that under the reformed European calendar, which everyone now uses, his birthday would have been January 4. However, Newton was born in 1643 and died in 1726. England didn’t adopt the new calendar until 1750. It’s perfectly reasonable to regard his birthday as the date in use in his home country.

Dates of birth don’t have any intrinsic significance, of course. Those who want to call it January 4 can. But it’s especially silly for people who celebrate Jesus’s birthday on December 25 to express outrage at alleged inaccuracy in such matters. Even if you take everything in the Bible as literal truth, there’s nothing in it that indicates Jesus was born in winter, and the nocturnal watch of the shepherds makes a spring day much more likely.

Some people, like me, like to observe Newton’s birthday because the big religious holiday on December 25 has no special meaning to us, and it’s nice to celebrate something we find more meaningful. Let’s face it, this is the real reason for the outrage; a lot of Christians think no one but them should engage in any seasonal celebrations. Some of those people know enough history to know that shortly after Newton was born, the Puritans passed a law banning many forms of Christmas observation, so that gives conservative Christians a reason not to like anything English from that period. (I’d agree with their low opinion of the Puritans, if not their reasons.) On top of that, Newton may have been inclined toward Unitarianism.

If you missed December 25, celebrate Newton’s birthday again on January 4. That should make everybody happy.

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3 Responses to “Newton’s birthday and the “war on Christmas””

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    Let’s face it, this is the real reason for the outrage; a lot of Christians think no one but them should engage in any seasonal celebrations.

    I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I haven’t seen any conservatives express objections to the celebration of Hanukkah, or to the public display of Menorahs.

    I think it’s more accurate to say that conservatives object to non-religious seasonal celebration. They don’t object to religious celebrations other than their own; but they do object to celebrating something that has deep non-religious value to many people, such as Newton’s birthday.

    This is the same basic motive that also leads many conservatives to object to the commercialization of Christmas. While Ayn Rand’s statement about the secular meaning of Christmas is not widely known, I think it is safe to assume that the people who’re now railing against the celebration of Newton’s birthday would be just as outraged by Rand’s statement if they were aware of it. The issue is that they think celebration of the season must be tied to religion, and are unwilling to accept that non-religious people can also celebrate.

  2. Gary McGath Says:

    If they objected to celebrating Hanukkah, they’d get some really angry responses, and not just from Jews. I’ve seen Christian objections to Pagan displays; once (perhaps a couple of decades ago), the governor of New Hampshire tried to remove a Pagan display from a seasonal area on the State House grounds that had been declared open to all religions. The courts wouldn’t let him, of course. Conservatives, like most other people, prefer to go after relatively safe targets.

    Tangentially, I watched the first half hour or so of “It’s a Wonderul Life” last week before getting tired of it. Could that movie have been Rand’s inspiration for Eugene Lawson?

  3. Eyal Mozes Says:

    There are many who don’t recognize Paganism as a real religion. If you’re saying that the people who object to Pagan displays would object to Hanukkah as well except for its not being a “safe target”, I see no basis for that claim.

    There have been cases in which local governments sponsored display of Menorahs, and groups have successfully – and in my view, justifiably – sued to take them down. The groups suing were the ACLU, and other groups of that kind; the same ones who also successfully sued to remove displays of nativity scenes. So going after display of Menorahs is possible, and not especially “unsafe”; but it’s not the conservatives who’re doing it. “No one but them should engage in any seasonal celebrations” is clearly not an accurate expression of the conservatives’ motives.

    I agree with your view of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (I did watch it to the end, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that); but I’m not aware of anything Rand said about it, or any evidence that she saw it. Rand wrote comments in her journal evaluating the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” (Journals of Ayn Rand, hardcover edition, pp. 367-369); it seems plausible from these comments that the inspiration for Eugene Lawson came from that movie.


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