Why December 25?

For the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar at all.

Elesha Coffman

It’s very tough for us North Americans to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging to Bethlehem in anything but, as Christina Rosetti memorably described it, “the bleak mid-winter,” surrounded by “snow on snow on snow.” To us, Christmas and December are inseparable. But for the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar anywhere.

If observed at all, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church’s earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.

Not all of Origen’s contemporaries agreed that Christ’s birthday shouldn’t be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost). Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.

The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen’s concern about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.

Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ’s birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6. Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ’s baptism.

Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.

The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. “It’s just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow,” naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

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Google removes thousands of malware sites

On Monday, Sunbelt Software’s security blog revealed that thousands of malware redirects were showing up in search engine results. Network bots designed to post relevant keywords and spam links in various online forms (think forum posts or blog comments) helped attackers claim high-ranking search engine positions for various obscure and seemingly innocuous search terms. According to Sunbelt, two of the thousands of terms were “infinity” and “hospice.” Yeah, that’s cool. Search for hospice information for a sick friend or family member, potentially get your system infected with nasty malware.

On Tuesday, Sunbelt revealed more information about the ill-effects clicking on these fake links could have on a vulnerable system (as a reminder – ALWAYS keep your browser and Internet security tools up to date). Best case scenario – you might end up with one of those annoying toolbars and pop-up ads for fake security software. Worst case? Your computer could be used to generate false-clicks for the attacker’s pay-per click programs (so they infect your system so that you can make them money), or worse still, that bot could load other malware/worms/trojans onto the unprotected system. Further investigation also revealed that these SEO-poisoning attacks were targeted at Google, although other search engines may have also been victim to the attacks.

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Lawyers: Even Microsoft Confused Over Vista Marketing

A Microsoft product manager couldn’t correctly explain the “Vista Capable” marketing slogan, according to recent filings in a lawsuit that claims the company misled consumers with a prerelease Vista campaign last year.

A Microsoft Corp. product manager couldn’t correctly explain the “Vista Capable” marketing slogan, according to recent filings in a lawsuit that claims the company misled consumers with a prerelease Vista campaign last year.

The case, first filed in March by Washington state resident Diane Kelley, charged Microsoft with deceptive practices in letting PC makers slap a “Vista Capable” sticker on PCs, when “a large number” of the machines would be able to run only Vista Home Basic, the simplest version of the operating system.

About two weeks ago, lawyers for Kelley requested that the lawsuit be given class-action status, which would open the plaintiff list to all U.S. residents. Last week, Microsoft opposed that move in its own filing with the federal court in Seattle.

Microsoft argued that it spent considerable time and effort educating the public and providing information to its OEM hardware partners about the Vista Capable program, as well as a separate-but-related logo that labeled some PCs in late 2006 as “Premium Ready.” Both programs and their associated stickers were used by Microsoft and computer makers to sell Windows XP systems in the last quarter of the year because Vista’s retail release had been delayed until January, after the holiday sales season.

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Google Body: Users Find Asses with Both Hands

MOUNTAIN VIEW–Information search giant Google, Inc. announced Thursday the release of Google Body, a search service aiming to index the internal and external anatomy of every living creature on the planet. “Google has long been dedicated to making information both useful and universally accessible,” notes Google VP of Product Development Eric Hind. “We’re happy now to extend search to information about human bodies, mine and yours, inside and out, from the number of follicles on my head to the length of the President’s toenails.”

The project, known as Google Body, sees the company partnering with public transportation systems, libraries, and motor vehicle departments to place scanning equipment in high-traffic doorways and public thoroughfares. Though details of the agreements are scarce and reportedly subject participating city and state officials to strict non-disclosure terms, Google’s announcement confirmed that the project is active in several major U.S. population centers, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City, with agreements with at least 16 other cities in late-stage negotiation. “We’ve passed proof-of-concept at this point,” adds Hind, “and now our focus is scalability and rolling this thing out nationwide.”

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Facebook Users Complain Of Tracking

NEW YORK (AP) — Some users of the online hangout Facebook are complaining that its two-week-old marketing program is publicizing their purchases for friends to see.

Those users say they never noticed a small box that appears on a corner of their Web browsers following transactions at Fandango, Overstock and other online retailers. The box alerts users that information is about to be shared with Facebook unless they click on “No Thanks.” It disappears after about 20 seconds, after which consent is assumed.

Users are given a second notice the next time they log on to Facebook, but they can easily miss it if they quickly click away to visit a friend’s page or check e-mail.

“People should be given much more of a notice, much more of an alert,” said Matthew Helfgott, 20, a college student who discovered his girlfriend just bought him black leather gloves from Overstock for Hanukkah. “She said she had no idea (information would be shared). She said it invaded her privacy.”

The girlfriend was declining interviews, Helfgott said.

An Overstock.com Inc. spokesman said no one was immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Facebook has long prided itself on guarding its users’ privacy, but the walls have gradually lowered. In 2006, a “news feeds” feature allowing users to track changes friends make to profiles backfired when many users denounced it as stalking and threatened protests. Facebook quickly apologized and agreed to let users turn off the feature.

The new program lets companies tap ongoing conversations by alerting users about friends’ activities through the feeds. About 40 Web sites have decided to embed a free tool from Facebook, known as a Beacon, to enable the marketing feeds.

The idea is that if users see a friend buy or do something, they’d take that action as an endorsement for a movie, a band or a soft drink.

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Nokia N810: unboxing and first impressions

My shiny new Nokia N810 Internet Tablet was delivered yesterday. After fondling it for most of the day, I’m relatively impressed. The N810 is a bit smaller than the N800, which makes it more comfortable to use and easier to tote around in a pocket.

I took plenty of pictures, and below the gadget porn you’ll find my report on the device thus far. It’s impressive, but N800 owners should be aware of a few caveats. To the pictures…


The N810 box.


Inside the N810 box.


Deeper inside the N810 box.


All the goodies that come with the N810, including a car mount.


The N810, with the sliding keyboard out.


The N810, propped up on its stand.


The N810, turned on and displaying the home screen.


This one is for size comparison, showing N810 next to the N800 on top of an Asus Eee PC.

The built-in GPS hardware is a nice addition, but the free mapping software is disappointingly limited, and users who want voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation will have to pay more for the full version of WayFinder’s software, which is expected to be available by December.

The N810’s built-in keyboard also falls short of my expectations. The keys are very mushy, and it’s easy to hit multiple keys at once by accident. I was extremely frustrated with it at first, but after a day of typing I’ve gotten used to it and my accuracy has improved considerably. My current verdict on the keyboard is that it could be better, but it isn’t bad once you’re familiar with it.

I also tested my Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard with the N810, and it worked just fine. For writing articles and other serious work, I greatly prefer my external Bluetooth keyboard rather than the N810’s built-in thumb keyboard.

The N810 ships with Nokia’s OS2008 (which can also be installed on N800 devices), and it’s pretty darn good. The interface has been refined considerably and it improves performance and battery life. It comes bundled with most of the same applications as OS2007, but with a few additions. The terminal application, which provides access to a command-line with BusyBox, is now installed by default. An installer for Skype is also included in the menu by default, but attempting to activate it causes a dialog window to appear informing users that the Skype installer isn’t available for the N810 yet. Nokia’s support web site says that Skype will be available very soon. I hope that it supports video chat like the Skype 2.0 beta for Linux.

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