PAUL BIRCHCHRISTMAS IN COURT
Have I ever told you about the time when Callum's livelihood was threatened by the Christmas Unifiers? Of course, on MacRobert's World, where every keep kept its own calendar and Christmas came twice a day at least, there were bound to be moves towards rationalisation. Ever since Callum's great-to-the-nth-grandfather had built the place, a century or so before, there'd been endless attempts at creating a unified calendar for the whole supramundane planet, or failing that, at any rate throughout the City. Just think of the convenience! The inhabitants of MacRobert's thought — and gave standardisation a miss.
It wasn't as if mutually comprehensible calendars were unavailable. Stick the letters HA after the date (for Habitat Authority or Home Accordant, no one was quite sure which) and you had a time measurement as synchronous with Greenwich on Earth as relativity would allow. But if you expected the keeps, or the more colourfully ethnic City communities, ever to use this calendar day-to-day and eschew their own, why, you simply hadn't a clue how pigheadedly idiosyncratic MacRobert's Worlders could be. Not that this was considered any cause for apology — that was exactly the kind of world the individualistic Founder had in mind.
The Christmas Unifiers had a different beef. Daily doses of the 25th of December, they argued, both spoilt the fun and missed the point. Christmas should come just once a year, and everyone throughout Christendom should celebrate it at pretty much the same time. Even Callum had to admit they had a case. How could you sing O come all ye faithful and really mean it when you knew that at best it was O come approximately 0.3% of the faithful, being those who happen to be celebrating Christ's birthday today, and hope that the rest get around to it later in the year?
In the old days, they said, Christmas really meant something. Wars would cease around the earth. High streets would go mad with the Christmas shopping spirit. Men would show good will towards men, in the reasonable expectation of getting a bit of good will back. Seasonal cheer would abound and everyone would be happy — while those who still refused to be happy could be ridiculed as miserable scrooges. At Christmas, mankind truly became One, a great and holy fraternity. Well, you get the idea.
And despite the sentimentality, it wasn't such a bad idea at that. Callum knew all too well that in the endless festivities of MacRobert's world, not least in those he arranged himself, there was something missing, something barely glimpsed in the ubiquitous nostalgia for the Christmases of Home, felt even (or especially) by those who had never seen the mother planet, never known any home but MacRobert's: a sense of the universality of the message and celebration of Christmas, which conflict over the date somehow weakened or betrayed.
On the other hand, MacRobert's inhabitants were proud of their confusing calendars, which so effectively distinguished their planet from all other planets, and their own keep from other keeps. It helped make them what they were. Even that nostalgia that Callum often saw and sometimes regretted was in its way a gain — a sad and unique pleasure that most would be loathe to lose.
For years the Christmas Unifiers found sympathy, particularly in the City, but little active support. Commercial interests who hankered after an old-fashioned Christmas rush were willing to sponsor them, but most manufacturers and retailers were only too happy to spread the load throughout the year. And nary a keep nor community shifted its calendar by so much as a single day.
The Christmas Unifiers found an answer. The law. They took Christmas to court. That is, they sued the keeps and communities for loss of amenity due to the unlawful celebration of Christmas on dates other than the 25th December (HA).
The case opened before Judge Jenkins in the Magistracy of Westminster Regent, which despite its imposing name was an unimportant circuit court in a select and unlitigious neighbourhood a few hundred miles south of the City proper.
As precedent for their action (and one felt they skated over this rather hastily) the Unifiers cited the abolition of Christmas by the Parliamentarians under Cromwell. It was less than clear whether this was intended as precedent for the lawful regulation of the celebration of Christmas or, given the unlawful nature of Cromwell's regime, for the inalterability of the said date. Counsel for the keeps, engaged on infelicitously short notice, failed to make as much of this ambiguity as it was later argued that he ought to have done, though since the magistrate himself, by his own admission, took absolutely no account of the cited precedent, which he didn't understand, it is hard to see this as having affected the outcome of the case one way or the other.
The substance of the Unifiers' case was simple. Since the essence of Christmas was to join with all the faithful in the celebration of the birth of Christ, members of the said faithful suffered a loss when others refused to join in celebration on the appointed day, namely the 25th December (HA). Moreover, were not even the more secular yuletide elements ultimately based on a similarly collective socialisation?
It was not disputed that the loss was real. But was it unlawful? Did the Unifiers indeed have a legal right that those who celebrated Christmas should do so on the appointed day? The keeps argued, rather weakly, that the Unifiers were wrong and one calendar was as good as any other. Judge Jenkins rejected this. He ruled, firstly, that there was no obligation upon any man to celebrate Christmas at all (unless he had previously contracted so to do), and secondly, that any man or group of men was entitled to engage in festivities of a yuletide nature at any time, but thirdly, that if any man or group of men wished to celebrate Christmas itself there was a legal obligation to do so only on the said 25th December (HA).
It was subsequently revealed that Judge Jenkins had himself recently missed a crucial appointment due to a calendar mix-up, so it is possible that his ruling was not entirely unbiased.
"Christmas Day," he concluded, "has a legal identity with the 25th December (HA). To promote or conspire to promote any other date is an act of fraud."
This was a bombshell.
Communities collywobbled and the keeps were up in arms. Move Christmas Day? This was nothing less than an assault upon their fundamental liberties! Cooler heads pointed out that the judgement applied only under City Law, and could not be enforced within the sovereign territories of the keeps themselves. Warmer heads pointed out that local courts enforced City Law almost everywhere on MacRobert's, and contracts were almost invariably formulated under it. If City Law were rejected the results could only be catastrophic. The demise of inter-keep trade. Isolationism. The collapse of civilisation. War. Not your everyday playful little wars, that make life on MacRobert's world such fun, but wars without rules. Wars that no Habitat Authority could control, wars blasting the very geosphere into ruin and dumping the keeps into the gas giant far below. The End of the World.
And as if that weren't quite enough, Callum's own income would inevitably shrink by a factor of nearly 365¼.
Perhaps the anxious populace would have been comforted had they realised that what lawsuits mostly lead to are more lawsuits. The keeps regrouped and appealed.
The appeal was heard before High Judge MacRobert-MacRobert (and if this seems confusing please remember how very many MacRoberts there are on MacRobert's world) in number three court of the Combined City Central Courts (known as the Tesseract or C4), courts one and two being otherwise engaged in a murder and a disputed pick-pocketing.
The High Judge ruled only the third of Judge Jenkins' points contentious.
Counsel for the keeps immediately challenged the use of the HA calendar. "If Christmas has a unique identity, it is surely with the 25th December Anno Domini. But HA cannot be AD. Relativity forbids it."
Callum's counsel, acting as amicus curiae, now proceeded to score an own goal. "Actually," he said, "synchronising interstellar dates is easy, even on a moving starship. All you do is work out on what date you'd get back home if you reversed your acceleration profile to date then did it all over again in reverse for the trip back, then divide the interval by four and bob's your uncle."
The court blinked. "Which means . . . ?"
"That dates HA are dates AD, for all practical purposes."
Keeps' Counsel groaned and fell back to his reserved position. "We don't stop Seventh-day Adventists keeping the Sabbath on a Saturday, even though its essence is allegedly as a day of rest for everyone and an opportunity for all the faithful to join together in worship. How is that any different — except that the Bible says that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, but doesn't mention Christmas at all?"
"That's freedom of religion," the Unifiers' counsel argued, "but the keeps all believe in Christmas, yet violate the essence of their own beliefs."
"Oh yeah? And where does this essence stuff come from anyhow? The wise men, perhaps? And they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and essence of Christmas. I don't think. As far as the keeps are concerned, the essence of Christmas is for them to celebrate the season in their own way and in their own good time."
Judge MacRobert-MacRobert nodded.
The Unifiers weren't beaten. "Christmas is specifically advertised as Christ's birthday, of which there can be only one per year. It can therefore only be held on the one date."
"But Jesus wasn't born in December anyway," protested Keeps' Counsel. " Remember . . . shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Nobody knows when Jesus' birthday really was, but it certainly wasn't in winter time."
"Beside the point. The 25th December is his official birthday."
"Who says so?"
"Everybody does! Even your keeps. They just use the wrong calendars."
"Enough, gentlemen." The High Judge brought the debate to a close. When he returned to deliver his judgement he said, "This court hereby confirms the opinion of Judge Jenkins that the term Christmas Day has by long-standing tradition a legal identity with the 25th December and unless otherwise specified the calendar must on MacRobert's world be assumed to be HA, held equivalent to the year of our Lord at Home, Anno Domini."
He paused for a theatrical sip of water. "However, nothing in law can forbid the use of other calendars, unless the intent or effect be to deceive, and I find the defendants for the most part guiltless in this regard. Furthermore, this court must rule itself incompetent to proclaim on the validity of any alleged essence of Christmas, or of the Sabbath, or of any other such commemoration. These are matters not of rights, but of conscience."
"Christmas," decreed Judge MacRobert-MacRobert with an access of sentimentality, "is not a date on the calendar, but a celebration in men's hearts."
So that was that — and Christmas on MacRobert's went its own peculiar way.
© Paul Birch, 23rd Dec. 1998.