Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Christmas King

Christmas Day was not celebrated in the past with all the pomp and circumstance we grant it today. It was, however, an auspicious day. Coming four days after the winter solstice, it is the day when it is easy to confirm (without careful measurement by instruments) that the days are, indeed, growing longer and therefore the "sun is returning." This made it an important day for many pre-literate cultures, and this importance was not forgotten.

Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III
Schoolchildren learning about the history of Western Civilization all hear the story of how Charlemagne was in Rome on Christmas Day in 800, and while at mass the pope placed the crown of the Holy Roman Emperors on his head, at once elevating him to the highest temporal position in Europe and implying that the pope had power to choose and make the emperor. (Actually, the pope owed Charlemagne a favor: the people of Rome disliked him and tried to torture him, and Leo III fled to Charlemagne, asking for support. Charlemagne traveled with Leo back to Rome in November of 800 and restored him to his papal throne.)

The 25th of December was an easy day to remember, and some rulers after Charlemagne used it as the official start to their reigns.

In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey in London, having waited well over a month since defeating his enemies and establishing his rule.

Baldwin of Boulogne (c.1058-1118), one of the leaders of the First Crusade, was chosen to rule Jerusalem after the death of his brother, Godfrey of Bouillon. Godfrey refused the title "King," believing it was inappropriate for anyone other than Jesus Christ to be styled "king" of Jerusalem. Godfrey died in July 1100. Baldwin had no trouble either calling himself "King of Jerusalem" or driving the lesson home by being crowned in Jerusalem on the day celebrating Christ's birth.

Baldwin takes the crown of Jerusalem
Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154) started life as Count of Sicily, later becoming Duke of Apulia and Calabria. He worked to unite all the Norman-conquered lands of Sicily and southern Italy. By 1130 he was ruling over a wide area including Apulia, Calabria, Capua, Naples, and part of Spoleto. "Count" and "Duke" were no longer sufficient for his stature, and he had himself crowned the first King of Sicily on Christmas Day in 1130.

Christmas Day is a day we associate with gifts. For some people in history, Christmas "gifts" were on a much grander scale.

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