Friday, December 8, 2006

Born on Christmas Day

The semester's almost over, and thoughts turn to the day that marks the birth of the man who brought truth and enlightenment to the world. I refer, of course, to Isaac Newton, born on December 25, 1642.

According to an old superstition, "The child born on Christmas Day will have a special fortune" (perhaps to make up for getting cheated on birthday presents). This was certainly true of Newton. His father, a prosperous but illiterate farmer, died three months before Newton's birth, and Isaac was raised by a largely uncaring grandmother and various members of his step-father's family. Nothing in his childhood indicated the greatness that lay ahead.

Isaac Newton has been called the greatest scientist in history. He didn't discover gravity--others had noticed it long before him--but he was the first to understand and explain it in mathematical terms. His three laws of motion remain the basis for classical mechanics. He invented calculus, the bane of high school and college students. His work on light became one of the two pillars of modern quantum physics.

Alexander Pope wrote of Newton's accomplishments: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, 'Let Newton be!' and there was light."

Isaac Newton wasn't the only Christmas Day baby. Clara Barton (born December 25, 1821) earned the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield" for her selfless nursing of the wounded during the Civil War. Later, she organized and led the American Red Cross.

Conrad Hilton (1887) was Paris Hilton's great grandfather. I believe he also had something to do with hotels.

Believe it or not, Robert L. Ripley was born on Christmas Day of 1893.

I wonder if Joseph McCarthy, born on December 25, 1908, was somehow traumatized by red bows, red lights, red poinsettias, etc.?

The list of famous people born on Christmas Day includes bandleader Cab Calloway (1907); Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918); The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (1924); singers Jimmy Buffett (1946) and Barbara Mandrell (1948); and actors Sissy Spacek (1949) and Humphrey Bogart (1899).

One person who was probably not born on December 25: Jesus. Many scholars place that event in the Spring. So instead of "God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, Remember, Christ, our Saviour, was born on Christmas day," perhaps we should sing "… was born sometime in May." (Try it.)

Christmas was moved to December 25 to allow retailers a chance to expand their after-Thanksgiving sales. No, really what happened was this: Early church leaders paid less attention to Jesus' birth than they did his death (Easter), and so at first no one really worried much about when to celebrate Christmas. But in the middle of the fourth century, Pope Julius I declared that Jesus' birth should be celebrated on December 25. He chose that date because there was already a major holiday at that time: Saturnalia, a lengthy pagan festival tied to the Winter solstice. By placing Christmas at that point on the calendar, Julius hoped to preempt Saturnalia and gain instant support for his new holiday.

And that's how Isaac Newton became a Christmas baby.