Storybook Architecture

The whimsical fairy tale architectural style of 1920s southern California.

Before the eye-catching styles of Tiki or Googie, the playful architectural style of southern California was Storybook. In the 1920s & ‘30s people looked to fairy tales and European provincial architecture for inspiration.

Storybook architecture is difficult to pin down but whimsy is certainly a unifying element. Crooked roofs, off kilter windows, rustic masonry, slightly askew fences – storybook ever so slightly warps & twists buildings to be a fantastical altered version of reality.

spadena house
The Spadena House today, a witch house sitting in the middle of Beverly Hills.
spadena house 1921
The Spadena House when it was originally an office in 1921.

Perhaps the most famous example of storybook is the Spadena House (aka the Witch’s House) in Beverly Hills. Built in 1921 it was designed by Hollywood art director & humorist Harry Oliver. The house originally served as an office for director Irvin Willat in Culver City but in 1926 it was moved and became the home it is today. Oliver also designed the storybook style Tam O’Shanter Inn, a Scottish themed restaurant. Opened in 1922 it was popular with both Walt Disney and his animators and influenced the art direction of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

the Tam O'Shanter in 1922
The Tam O’Shanter’s original exterior in 1922, when it was called Montgomery’s Country Inn.
Charlie Chaplin Studios
Charlie Chaplin Studios in the early 20th century.
Charlie Chaplin Studios today as Jim Henson Company Lot
Charlie Chaplin Studios today as Jim Henson Company Lot. As a nod to the past Kermit atop the tower is dressed as Chaplin’s famous character the Tramp.
the Hobbit Houses of Palms, LA
The Lawrence and Martha Joseph Residence and Apartments, aka the “Hobbit Houses”.
the Hobbit Houses of Palms, LA
The turtle pond of the Hobbit Houses.

Other examples of storybook architecture include Charlie Chaplin Studios (today Jim Henson Company Lot), Lawrence Joseph’s “Hobbit Houses”, as well as the Snow White Cottages which were so nick named because they too were said to have influenced the art direction of Snow White. The Snow White Cottages were also briefly home to Elliott Smith and can be seen in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

As the Great Depression hit, and other styles were born, storybook architecture faded out.

Added info: Harry Oliver’s creativity & humor took many forms. Over the decades he designed buildings in a variety of playful styles that would have been right at home in Disneyland. In his desert rat persona living in the Borrego Valley just south of Palm Springs he had a bit of fun crafting fake peglegs and scattering them around the desert. It was his practical joke to lead tourists to think they may have stumbled upon a clue to the Lost Pegleg Mine of 19th century Thomas Long “Pegleg” Smith (Pegleg Smith later was a character in Oregon Trail II).

Sunday Morning takes a tour through the Spadena House.

Earworms

When a fragment of a song repeats over & over in your mind.

Earworms (aka Involuntary Musical Imagery) are pieces of music that ceaselessly repeat in your mind until something finally breaks the cycle, ending the loop. Almost everyone experiences earworms. Sometimes a song gets stuck in your head after you recently heard it but other times it can be triggered by a memory (such as seeing a product and remembering an old commercial jingle).

The types of songs that get stuck in our heads tend to be faster simpler melodies that have some unique/catchy element that make them stand out from other songs. They also tend to be (but are not always) songs you like, particular to your musical tastes, and are songs you listen to more often. Another quality that makes a song a strong candidate for an earworm, which is also a quality that our brains like, is repetition. Typically when a song gets stuck in your head it’s not the whole song but instead is just a catchy fragment of a song that can seamlessly repeat over & over. Related to the Zeigarnik effect and how our brains hold on to unfinished tasks, a song fragment will remain in our brains, unfinished, looping over & over until we are able to complete the song (or until we get distracted). As such one way to stop an earworm is to listen to the entire song. Like nudging the needle on a record player that is skipping over and over, listening to the entirety of the song can help break the loop and bring a sense of closure.

Other potential cures for earworms, beyond listening to the song in its entirety, are:
• Listen to “cure” songs (not the band, although …). Listening to other songs can distract/free your mind from the loop it is in.
• Do something else. Since we aren’t as good at multitasking as we thing we are, putting your conscious thoughts towards some other task can end the earworm.
• Chew gum. The act of chewing uses some of the same regions of the brain as speech and, since most earworms are songs with lyrics, chewing can help distract your brain from the looping lyrics of the earworm.

Added info: as for literal worms or bugs in your ears, it happens but it’s not common. Cockroaches (who are not adept at walking backwards), spiders, and flies seem to be the most common types of insects/arachnids that accidentally find their way into human ears. These creatures typically don’t want to be there but may end up getting stuck which is bad for everyone involved.

Finally the term “earworm” comes from the earwig insect which was thought to wiggle its way into your ears (which, thankfully, doesn’t happen).

TED-ed explores earworms.

the Molly Maguires

The American Irish secret society for labor rights that might not have actually existed.

Late 19th century Pennsylvania was a hotbed of coal mining. The northeastern part of the state was home to dozens of mines extracting anthracite coal (the region is still home to the largest concentrated anthracite deposit in the world). Anthracite coal had become the fuel of choice to heat homes as well as power the American Industrial Revolution. Extracting tens of millions of tons of coal was a dangerous, dirty, and demanding job which fell upon poor immigrants from Europe.

Among these recent immigrants were the Irish. Emigrating in large part to escape the famine of the mid-19th century many Irish settled in Pennsylvania. Trading one disaster for another, by the 1870s the Irish in the coal mines were risking their lives for poverty wages. The remote locations of many of these mines meant workers and their families were tethered to the mines and were rarely in a position to break the cycle of poverty. Children began their mining careers separating slate from coal as “breaker boys”, eventually graduating to working down in the mines.

coal mines
Mining coal was an incredibly dangerous job. Between the long term health problems and the short term concerns of fires and cave-ins, the dangers of the mines were constant and endured for poverty wages.

Deaths were common. In September of 1869 a fire at the Avondale Mine killed 110 coal miners. In Schuylkill County 566 miners were killed over a seven year period. The situation has been summarized as, “Wages were low, working conditions were atrocious, and deaths and serious injuries numbered in the hundreds each year.” The English & Welsh immigrants at the mines tended to be given management positions which frequently meant that the power struggles that had played out between the poor Irish and the English & Welsh landowners in Ireland were played out again in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

the Molly Maguires

In this depression some of the Irish miners decided to fight back. One method was through organized labor strikes, but more famously they retaliated through violence. Between 1862 and 1875 fourteen mining officials were murdered. This gave rise to the conspiracy theory that, within the regional Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), was a militant group of Irishmen responsible for these organized killings. This group was called the Molly Maguires.

The Molly Maguires had been a secret society in Ireland who used threats & violence to settle disputes. Pennsylvania journalist Benjamin Bannan was the first to use the name Molly Maguires in association with the violence of the area. As the murders began the name Molly Maguires only became more infamous. That said, while the violence in coal country was real the Molly Maguires may not have been – there is no evidence that the Molly Maguires in America ever existed. Bannon pinned the violence on the Molly Maguires but he had no proof.

the Molly Maguires

the Day of the Rope

Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad (which also owned dozens of mines), hired the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate the Irish miners. The Pinkertons sent agent James McParland to go undercover and find any evidence of murder plots or other crimes. McParland worked for two and a half years undercover and his information was the primary evidence in the subsequent 1876-1877 trials of nearly 50 alleged Mollies. In a racist miscarriage of justice, the state of Pennsylvania turned over the investigation & prosecution of the alleged Irish criminals to the Reading Railroad company. Company president Gowen even served as one of the prosecutors. No Irish Catholics were chosen to be jurors, most jurors were Pennsylvania Dutch, some of whom didn’t speak English. There was very little evidence and the prosecution’s cases largely hung on establishing that the defendants were members of the AOH and the conspiracy theory that the AOH was a front for the unproven Molly Maguires.

By 1879, 20 alleged Molly Maguires had been found guilty and executed (all of whom were Irish Catholics) while 23 more had been sent to prison. Following these executions all supposed Molly Maguire activity ended, not because all of the guilty parties had been executed, but more likely from fear of retaliation by the mining companies.

Added info: of the executed, one particularly curious case is that of Alex Campbell. As legend has it, before being taken to the gallows he protested his innocence and placed his hand to the wall of his prison cell stating “There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man.” The cell has been cleaned and painted many times, but the handprint can still be seen in his cell at Carbon County Jail in present day Jim Thorpe, PA.

Reading Railroad president and Molly Maguire prosecutor Franklin Gowen later died by gunshot to the head in 1889. Conspiracy theorists question if it was suicide or retaliation by the Molly Maguires.

One final item, the 1915 Sherlock Holmes story The Valley of Fear was inspired by the Molly Maguires. The story’s second half is about a mining town with a largely Irish fraternal organization which has a secret second organization fighting against the mine bosses on the behalf of union laborers. The story even has a Pinkerton agent infiltrating “the Scowrers.”

In Search of History made a great documentary on the Molly Maguires.

The Molly Maguires have become a part of Irish American culture & history thanks in part to both The Dubliners song and the 1970 movie of the same name.

Nkisi Nkondi

Religious power sculptures that have nails driven into them to call upon protective spirits.

The Kongo people of central Africa believe that Nzambi Mpungu is the creator of all things. To help us bridge the gap between the spirit world and our physical world a nganga (plural being “banganga”) can serve as a mediator. A nganga is a person who’s a combination of shaman, healer, mediator, and a sort of spiritual notary public.

One of the more remarkable things about a nganga is that, in order to fulfill their role, they do so with the assistance of a nkisi. A nkisi is both a spirit as well as the name of an object that can house the spirit. The physical nkisi object can be any manner of vessels from vases to horns to gourds. Into these vessels the nganga places medicinal substances (bilongo) that, with the aid of the spirits, are intended to help cure both societal as well as physical ills. The nganga will summon the nkisi spirit to go forth from the vessel into our physical world and help someone in need. One particularly aggressive kind of nkisi is the nkisi nkondi, the hunter.

While nkisi nkondi vary in design their being riddled with nails is consistent.

The Hunter

Typically, but not always, nkisi nkondi are carved to look like humans. The medicinal bilongo is frequently placed in the stomach of the figure, like an anthropomorphic monstrance, with glass or a mirror covering the hole (the glass/mirror representing a window into the spirit world). To “charge” the sculpture with a spirit it is typically placed in a graveyard (or other location known to be haunted by spirits) before being brought into the village by the nganga. The most remarkable aspect of the nkisi nkondi however are the nails.

Nkisi Nkondi are riddled with nails. Nails are driven into the figure by the nganga to affirm oaths, to serve as witness to agreements, to stop witches and evil spirits, etc. Before hammering a nail into the figure the nail is licked by all parties involved. If a promise is broken or an injury is inflicted the spirit inside is activated and sets out to hunt down the guilty party and punish them. Nkisi nkondi statues frequently have dozens of nails driven into their torsos, indicating a lifetime of service to the community.

Originally these wooden figures were struck struck together to awaken the spirit inside. When nails became available the figures changed into the form we know today. As enslaved Kongo people were brought to North America nkisi culture and the practice of making nkisi nkondi came with them (albeit hidden from the slaveholders). A human shaped figure with nails in it certainly could have influenced the Western idea of voodoo dolls but it’s more likely that voodoo dolls are a result of thousands of years of poppets in sympathetic magic found in cultures around the world.

Smart History discusses nkisi nkondi.

Jawn

The Philadelphia replacement noun that started as “joint” in New York City.

The word “jawn” is a Philadelphia slang noun that can serve as a substitute for anything. Jawn is all things. Jawn is singular and/or plural (but “jawns” is also a viable plural form of “jawn”). Much like how bagpipes have become a symbol of Scotland even though they aren’t from Scotland, jawn is associated with Philadelphia but it didn’t start there. Jawn began as the word “joint” in New York City.

The official meaning of “joint” is that of a connection or a place where things come together. From this the Black American slang meaning for “a place to hang out” (such as “juke joint”) came about in the late 19th century. This use of joint eventually developed a racist connotation where “joint” also became slang for illegal drugs. Fast forward to 1980s New York City and the word joint developed a new positive meaning through the early rap scene. Funky 4+1’s That’s The Joint for example uses joint as a thing you like and enjoy. This use of joint is also heard later in the Beastie Boys’ Shake Your Rump. It’s this meaning of joint that took on a new life in Philadelphia.

Semantic Bleaching & The Southern Influence

One of the earliest instances of this joint change is a 1981 linguistic study field recording of an unnamed Black man in West Philadelphia. He uses joint to refer to all manner of things, from objects to women and more – joint had become a catch-all word that meant anything you wanted. This change is an example of “semantic bleaching” where there’s a reduction in a word’s intensity (like how “awesome” went from “inspiring awe” to also meaning “cool” or “terrific”). The Philadelphia semantic bleaching of joint likely took place sometime in the late 1970s.

Joint also underwent a change in pronunciation. The Philadelphia accent, while similar to New York City, is distinctly different owing to a greater influence of American southern accents (an accent that has linguistically made Philadelphia the “northern-most Southern city” according to UPenn linguist William Labov). Through this accent the “oi” sound in “joint” became more of an “aw” sound. Also the ending T became muted owing to African American English Vernacular. As such “joint” was pronounced more as “jawnt” and then just “jawn”.

Jawn is a part of the cultural identity of Philadelphia.
While jawn might not be heard or seen everyday it’s regularly found throughout Philadelphia.

Today jawn is far more versatile and celebrated than its joint ancestor. While perhaps not heard on a daily basis it’s still a part of Philadelphia’s cultural identity. One can find jawn in graffiti, boutique clothing companies, carpetbagger lawyers trying to ingratiate themselves to the region, and more. Jawn is as Philly as cheesesteaks, the Mummers, the Wanamaker Christmas light show, wooder ice, Wawa, Rocky, and soft pretzels.

Added info: in 2023 Dictionary.com added Jawn to the dictionary.

Funky 4+1’s That’s The Joint is one of the best examples of joint before it morphed into jawn.

While it doesn’t contain “jawn”, The Dead Milkmen’s 1988 classic Punk Rock Girl is a good example of the Philadelphia accent. Also featured in this video is Eastern State Penitentiary.

Crop Circles

Instead of being made by high tech aliens, they’re made by clever humans with low tech tools.

Crop circles, the geometric designs created in fields by flattening vegetables stalks, entered the cultural sphere in 1970s England. Since then over 10,000 circles have been found around the world (although over 90% of them have been within 50 miles of Stonehenge in southern England). While a host of mystical, magical, paranormal theories have been put forth to explain their creation (aliens/UFOs being the most popular theory), the reality is that they’re all hoaxes.

The credit for the crop circle phenomenon largely goes to Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. In 1978, while sitting in a pub in Cheesefoot Head, England, the two thought it would be a bit of fun to create patterns in a field – as if aliens had landed in the night. Their inspiration was a series of stories of circles that Bower had heard while living Australia in 1966. Regarding their first crop circle Chorley said “We enjoyed that first one and had a good giggle about it after.”

Imitation is the highest form of flattery

Bower & Chorley created more than 200 crop circles between 1978 to 1991. Each man used a board with a rope attached that, while holding the arch of rope in their hands, they then used a foot to push the board down to flatten the crop. By 1985 Bower’s wife was suspicious of what he was up to. He told her the full story and to prove it he had her design her own crop circle which he and Chorley later created.

Inspired by the designs of Bower & Chorley imitators began to pop up. One of the most active groups was the Circlemakers who considered their work to be conceptual art. Rob Irving of the group said the power of the art comes from the mystery. Even as they admit they create crop circles the Circlemakers won’t confirm which ones they have made, so as to retain some of the mystery.

Bower & Chorley started the crop circle phenomenon.

The Thrill Is Gone

On September 9, 1991 the mystery of the crop circles came to an end when Bower & Chorley revealed their secret to the newspaper Today. They explained how they did it, offered evidence, and gave a demonstration. Despite this, as happens with most conspiratorial thinking, true believers rejected this evidence and continued to believe in extraordinary explanations. “Croppies” still believe that unproven and unknown forces have created these designs and that any evidence to the contrary can be outright rejected or (paradoxically) used as evidence as a part of some larger conspiracy.

Still, by the 1990s crop circles were popular tourist attractions in southern England bringing tourist dollars to local businesses and to the farmers themselves. One farmer near Stonehenge said he made about £30,000 charging tourists to visit his fields. Like any cultural phenomenon, the popularity of crop circles diminished. As some groups began to be paid to create crop circles as advertisements for major brands (Nike, Pepsi, the BBC. Greenpeace, etc) there was less motivation to spend hours in the fields for free.

A short clip of Bower & Chorley discussing their work.

QI discusses crop circles and the simple tools needed to make them.

Added info: crop circles are not to be confused with circular crop fields. Center-pivot irrigation creates fields of crops that are circular shaped because the massive sprinkler pipes are rotated from a central point.

central-point irrigation of crops create circles, but not "crop circles"
Central-pivot irrigation creates circles of crops, but not “crop circles”.

Rock Columns

As lava/magma cools & contracts it can form polygon stone columns.

Columnar jointing is a rock formation where fractures (joints) occur in cooling volcanic rock. As the lava/magma cools from the outside inward it shrinks towards center points. This shrinking then continues from the top down forming columns of rock. These stone columns are frequently hexagonal with six sides (a shape very common in nature) but other numbers of sides occur as well.

These rock formations can be straight vertical columns (the Giant’s Causeway, Devil’s Tower, Svartifoss, etc.) but can also form with sideways irregularities due to how the molten rock moved and cooled (such as Alcantara Gorge where the lava cooled diagonally).

Devil's Tower
Devil’s Tower in Wyoming features the tallest columns in the world. On the right is a climber ascending the Tower, giving scale to the enormity of the columns.

Rock Folktales

Because they look carved and intentionally organized they don’t seem natural. Cultures around the world have come up with a variety of explanations for these rock formations. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is a striking example of columnar jointing which features the tallest columns in the world. Its name varies by different Native American groups but it tends to be versions of “Bear’s Home”. According to tradition, as children were fleeing a great bear (or bears) the animal’s claws dragged down the rock face, carving the columns we see today.

the Giant's Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, created by Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, features thousands of columns. It’s also featured on the album cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 album Houses of the Holy.

The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is perhaps the most famous example of columnar jointing. As the legend goes the causeway was formed by Irish giant (or just regular sized superhero) Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool). He built a series of stepping stones to connect Ireland to Scotland. Longer story short, the Scottish giant Benandonner smashed the causeway during his retreat from Ireland back to Scotland. Today the remnants of this “causeway” are the rocks at the Giant’s Causeway and a similar rock formation on the Isle of Staffa (the most famous part of Staffa is Fingal’s Cave, named after Fionn, which was a very popular source of inspiration for the arts in the 19th century).

Svartifoss
Iceland’s Svartifoss falls has served as the inspiration for Hallgrímskirkja church among other places.

In Iceland, a volcanic hotspot in the past as well as today, there are several examples of rock columns. The rock formations along the black sand beach of Reynisfjara are said to be two trolls who were dragging a three-masted ship to land. As they fought over the ship they lost track of time and dawn came, turning the trolls into the rock columns. The rock columns at Svartifoss were the inspiration for Hallgrímskirkja church in the center of Reykjavik. The hexagonal shapes of Svartifoss also influenced the design of the Harpa concert hall.

Added info: Columnar joint formations are not limited to Earth. The volcanism involved in the formation of Mars also created stone columns in much the same way we have them here.

Nick on the Rocks explains columnar jointing.

The Mari Lwyd

The southern Welsh custom that looks creepy but is actually a fun roving party.

The Mari Lwyd (roughly pronounced “mary lewid”) is a late winter custom in southern Wales where groups of men go door-to-door singing irreverent songs for drinks & food (a ritual known as “pwnco”). It’s in the folk tradition of mumming / caroling / wassailing but it’s also a proto-rap battle. The group will sing to gain entrance to a home, and the homeowner will sing a response giving a reason to deny them entry. This exchange goes back and forth until one side wins, either sending the group away to the next house or allowing them inside where they’re given refreshments.

It’s typically performed around Christmas / New Year’s and the homeowners usually allow the Mari to enter their home as it’s thought to bring good luck for the coming year. The group eventually exits, heading back out into the night, to perform again at the next house.

The Pale Horse

What sets this tradition apart from other mumming / wassailing customs is the titular Mari Lwyd which is a ghostly hobby horse made up of a man hiding under a sheet holding up a horse skull. The skull is adorned with lights or baubles in the eye sockets, streamers hanging down, and the jaw is wired so she can snap at people. If she gains entry to your house she will cause mischief, chasing members of the house or feigning an attempt at stealing things, but in good fun.

The Mari Lwyd, while mischievous, isn't as menacing as she seems.
The Mari Lwyd, while mischievous, isn’t as menacing as she seems.

The etymology of “Mari Lwyd” is debated but it likely means “gray mare” (as “llwyd” is gray in Welsh). The custom has regional differences but the basics are the same (a horse skull, a roving singing party, etc). Far from being an ancient pagan rite, the Mari Lwyd is first mentioned around the start of the 19th century with the “boom years” being between 1850-1920. It was a way for poorer people to earn extra money & food in the cold of winter. They requested donations by offering audiences a healthy dose of fun entertainment … all under the grim menacing stare of a horse skull.

The tradition declined as the number of Welsh speakers declined (the songs & replies are in Welsh). The influence of the Methodist church, who disapproved of the sinful drinking and boisterous activity, also hurt the tradition. While the Mari Lwyd tradition isn’t as popular as it once was it’s having a resurgence and still carries on.

A short video on how the Mari Lwyd tradition is still alive and being passed on to the next generation.

the Darlene Love Christmas Tradition

Darlene Love performed Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) every year on Late Show with David Letterman for 28 years.

In the 1960s Darlene Love sang as part of the Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, for whom she sang both lead as well as background vocals on a host of hit songs. She’s the uncredited lead vocalist on The Crystals’ 1962 hit He’s a Rebel, she sang background on The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, she sang background on the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, etc. Darlene Love’s voice can be heard all over the hit songs of the ‘60s.

A Christmas Tradition

In 1963 Love sang on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. The album is packed with great songs but Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is a masterpiece. While it wasn’t a hit at the time (it was released the same day as the Kennedy assassination) it’s become a Christmas standard. Basically, before Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, there was Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

Despite her talent Love’s career stalled in the 1970s and she found herself cleaning houses for a living. When she heard her own Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the radio while cleaning a home she decided she had to stage a comeback – enter David Letterman. In 1986 Letterman invited Love to perform Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on his show which became an annual tradition. For the next 29 years Love came back every year to perform the song (with the exception of 2007 during the writer’s strike). This Christmas tradition earned her the nickname of the “Christmas Queen”. In 2011 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Added info: During her comeback, Love sang backup on the cover of her own song when she sang background vocals on the 1987 U2 version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Love has also had an acting career, notably playing Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover’s) wife in the Lethal Weapon series.

Darlene Love’s final performance of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Letterman show in 2014.

A compilation of performances of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Letterman show.

When is Christmas?

Jesus’s birthday wasn’t December 25th – it was more likely sometime in September.

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. He wasn’t even born in the year 1 AD (AD, Anno Domini, a calendar system created entirely on the idea of the year of Jesus’s birth). There are competing theories as to why December 25th was chosen.

Christmas: meh ¯_(ツ)_/¯

To start, early Christians weren’t particularly focused on the date of Jesus’s birth – they were much more interested in Jesus’s ministry and Easter resurrection. The first recorded mention of Jesus’s birthday was around 200 CE by Clement of Alexandria who offered several possible dates, none of which were December 25th.

By around 300 CE two dates became associated with Jesus’s birth: December 25th and January 6th. December 25th became Jesus’s birthday for most western churches while January 6th became Christmas in a few others (January 6th also became the Feast of the Epiphany in western churches).

Despite what the internet might tell you, it is unlikely that December 25th was selected to usurp the pagan holidays of Sol Invictus, Saturnalia, or winter solstice festivals in general. Early Christians were strongly focused on distancing themselves and their beliefs from pagan religions. By the time Christians were co-opting pagan festivities to increase adoption of the faith the December 25th date for Christmas had already been established for over a hundred years.

From John the Baptist to Jesus

One of the best theories as to why we associate December 25th with Jesus’s birth has to do with the date of his crucifixion. There was a theory that great figures would be born and die in the same month (and even on the same date). The crucifixion has been calculated to have taken place on March 25th (but even that is debatable). Early Christians seem to have replaced his birth with his divine conception for this theory, and believing Jesus was conceived on March 25 (and counting 9 months later) brings us to his birth on December 25th.

So Jesus was born in December … except it could have been September. In Luke 1.26–27 we’re told that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel in the 6th month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and, if we calculate his birth based on his father Zechariah’s priestly duties at the temple, John was most likely born in late March. If Jesus was conceived 6 months after John, and adding 9 months, then Jesus’s birth took place sometime in September. That said, this math could also work with Zechariah’s second time serving in the temple, which would then place Jesus’s birth around March.

Either spring or fall, these dates make more sense with the idea that shepherds would be out tending their flock (which the Christmas narrative tells us) – there aren’t a lot of shepherds out tending their flock in the cold of December. Further, it’s unlikely the census that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for would have been in the winter, when the roads were in poor condition.

QI discusses the notion that Joseph & Mary traveled to Bethlehem to be a part of a Roman survey … which isn’t true.