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Devangshu Datta: Christmas, birthdays and Good Governance

Every Bengali neighbourhood in Kolkata possesses at least one youth nicknamed “Jishu”, (the Bengali version of Jesus). The nickname is automatically bestowed on any boy born on December 25, regardless of their religion, appearance or other distinguishing characteristics. Similarly, Bengali boys born on January 23 are often nicknamed, “Subhas” after Netaji.

It is not unusual for somebody to be born on December 25, since about 33 lakh Indians celebrate their birthday on Christmas. In fact, about 70,000 Indians are born on any given day and about 30,000 die on any given day as well. Indeed, if you pick a date at random, over 30 lakh Indians are likely to be celebrating their birthdays on that random date. (February 29 is unusual since it occurs only one-fourth as often as other days.)

India has a long history with multitudes of well-known people whose birthdays are scattered across the calendar. It is usually possible to find somebody distinguished who was born on a given date. The distinguished person’s birthday may then be commemorated in an appropriate manner.

For example, India celebrates Teachers Day (September 5), Children’s Day (November 14) and Mathematics Day (December 22) to commemorate the birthdays of S Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru and S Ramanujan, respectively. In other nations, these “secular festivals” are celebrated on other days, which are generally linked to some other eminent personality.

Religious festivals are also often linked to birthdays, of course. Apart from Christmas, there is Gurpurab, Id-Milad-un-Nabi, Buddha Purnima, Janmasthami, Mahavir Jayanti, etc. There are usually complications calculating such birthdates accurately since most ancient cultures used lunar calendars.

Dates shift around on lunar calculations because there are only 28 days or 29 days in a given lunar month. In many cases, it is also not known when a religious personality was born in solar calendar terms because the year of birth is often also uncertain.

It shouldn’t really matter if a date is set by aligning lunar calendar to solar, or in some other fashion. In some cases, followers of a given religion have simply agreed on a convenient date. For example, most Buddhists celebrate Buddha Jayanti at the full moon in May. If there are two full moons in May, different schools of Buddhists may celebrate it on two different dates.

Christmas is celebrated on at least two different dates by two major Christian sects who use two different solar calendars. The Greek Orthodox Church uses the old Julian Calendar, dating back to Julius Caesar. The Julian Calendar was corrected by the Catholic Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Gregory dropped 10 days to adjust for errors in the Julian. The world now uses the Gregorian as the universal civil calendar. But the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas in early January because the Greek Church did not accept the Catholic Pope’s 16th century corrections.

Quite often, several religious celebrations take place on or around the same dates. For example, the two equinoxes and the two solstices, and various times near those days are all celebrated across multiple cultures as different festivals.

This is not accidental. It is convenient to connect religious holidays to easily-marked astronomical events. Holi is celebrated at the full moon closest to Spring Equinox, The Winter Solstice connects to Sankanti-Pongal. The Jewish festival of Passover is also near the Spring Equinox, and so is the Christian Easter. The Jewish Festival of Hannukah often coincides with Christmas.

At various times, extremist regimes such as the French revolutionaries, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and the communists in Albania have abolished religious holidays. But it is unusual for democratic governments to try and turn widely celebrated religious holidays into a secular working day as “Good Governance” clumsily attempted to do. This is unlikely to be a very popular experiment. I doubt that even one of the 70,000-odd children born on December 25, 2014 will be named “Good Governance”.


Twitter: @devangshudatta

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