Why Schools Break for Winter

Do you realize how lucky you are to be a student? This is literally the only time in your life when you’re actually guaranteed a winter vacation. Whether you get one sweet week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, or a more extended reprieve through the month of December, you’ve got it pretty good compared to all the working stiffs out there.

And since you will someday be among those working stiffs, enjoy it while you can. The truth is that the United States is the only nation in the developed world that doesn’t legally require employers to provide paid vacation time. It doesn’t mean your future employer won’t offer a competitive vacation package — after all, a happy and well-rested employee is a productive one. Still, you have no guarantees.

As a college student, on the other hand, you can count on a few pretty reliable guarantees this time of year — thrilling bowl games, awesome marching band performances, probably some kind of tradition involving nude streaking in subzero temperatures, and of course, one, good solid chunk of time off.

So why, as students, are we thusly privileged? Why, as we prepare for the bitter realities of working life, are we so insulated from this most bitter reality of clocking in for work on the morning of December 26?

Saturn, Jesus, and the Roman Rager

Well, let’s start with a quick reflection on the time of year that college students typically observe winter break. To state the obvious, both Christmas and New Year’s Day are federal holidays, so most nonessential personnel enjoy at least two locked-in vacation days (excepting of course on those jerky years in which both occasions land on successive Saturdays).

It’s reasonable to assume that winter break is observed in deference to the large number of Americans who celebrate Christmas. Stated more directly, we get time off for Jesus’ birthday.

But here’s the thing: there is no biblical justification for the fact that this big birthday blowout is held on December 25 each year. In fact, based on the details provided in the Bible, astronomical records, and the fact that a Beach Boys song stood atop the charts that day, it seems likelier that Jesus was actually born in the summer.

This means it’s not entirely accurate to say that we enjoy an extended winter break because of the birth of Jesus. In fact, the pervasive celebrations this time of year actually predate the year “zero” by millennia.

Just as we do today, people throughout the ancient world observed winter solstice through ritual and celebration. This means that in the northern hemisphere, communities have been celebrating late December by roasting stuff over open fires and sharing merriment for many thousands of years. Indeed, despite the religious connotation of the Christmas holiday, the time of observation has its roots in pagan tradition. The adulation reserved for Jesus of Nazareth each December was once instead visited upon Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, wealth, and renewal.

Saturnalia was held December 17 of the Julian calendar. Its observation was marked by celebration, feasting, and, of course, a sacrifice to the titular god. So cherished was this happy occasion that the Roman’s gradually stretched the holiday from a mere day to a full week of frivolity that included public revelry, temporarily legalizing gambling, and a loosening of the rigid Roman caste system. It’s even said that masters provided table service to their slaves on this occasion.

So in essence, Saturnalia was one, long winter rager the likes of which ye have never seen. It was also so popular and beloved that it seemed perverse to dismantle the tradition just because Rome eventually made the collective conversion from pagan worship to Christian monotheism. So even as the Holy Roman Empire proliferated its version of Christianity throughout the known world, it was busy retrofitting Saturnalia for the age of monotheism. It was thus that the weeklong celebration extolling Saturn became a weekend celebration extolling Jesus.

While scholars disagree about exactly what time of year Jesus was born — with competing theories placing the event in spring, summer, or fall — and even about which year Jesus was born, one thing most agree upon is there’s no reason to think it happened December 25. That this became the eventual landing spot for Jesus’s birthday is a fact that we owe to pagan tradition — as are holiday mainstays such as the yule log, gift-giving, and the phrase “You’ll shoot your eye out kid.” OK, maybe not that last one, but the others.

The Western Christian Church officially codified the December date during the fourth century to coincide with the shortest day of the Roman calendar year. Emperor Augustus explained the decision in a sermon at the time, explaining, “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”

Granted, it’s a really inspiring concept. It’s just one that most biblical scholars will readily refute. Nonetheless, this is the short version of how we came to observe the birth of Jesus in convergence with the winter solstice, and how that observance tends to occupy at least a week.

What Would J.C. Do? I Meant Jimmy Carter, Who Did You Think?

OK. Fast-forward from the time of togas to about the time that National Lampoon’s Animal House was breaking the “toga party” into American popular culture. Granted, we’re skipping a lot of history between Jesus Christ and Jimmy Carter, but if you want to know how a weeklong celebration of Saturn became an oasis of vacation between fall and spring semester for America’s college students, we look to our nation’s thirty-ninth president.

I’ll set the scene. The year was 1979. Donna Summer ruled the airwaves. Dukes of Hazzard made its television debut. Islamic revolutionaries toppled the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran, shattering the global oil economy and casting the industrial world into a staggering energy crisis. Inflation surged. Recession set in. Gas stations were plagued by long lines and empty pumps.

Poor Jimmy Carter never had a chance. But one thing came out of the malaise that you’ll probably appreciate. America’s crippling energy crisis placed a strain on everything, including the nation’s schools and universities.

Spiking maintenance costs, energy scarcity, and flagging enrollment are all depressing trends. But these very trends helped forge the celebratory stretch of time on which you are about to embark. Colleges sought ways to navigate this difficult time. One of the ideas they devised was to start the school year a few days earlier while extending the length of the winter break, which already revolved around Christmas and New Year’s. It served as an opportunity to close down operations at a time of year when dipping temperatures translate to larger heating bills. By closing the dorms, putting the academic halls on standby, and paring down to barebones personnel, colleges could use a few of these winter weeks to save on both energy and staffing.

As an added bonus, by closing campuses to everyday students for a period of three to four weeks, colleges suddenly had the ability to offer mini-semesters across winter break… and students now how the free time to enroll. In other words, functioning on energy-saver mode, colleges found a way to make a few bucks on the side. Indeed, winter sessions have become standard fare for students seeking to make up a few credits or cram in a critical prerequisite ahead of a coming semester. And because winter sessions are now commonplace at many universities, so too has your extended winter break.

Donna Summer no longer rules the airwaves. Dukes of Hazzard ain’t on TV no more (Hazzard County accent implied). There is one thing we have in common with 1979 though. Fueling a university still costs a ton.

In 2009, students at Brown University issued an editorial in which they called for their massive five-week winter break to be shortened slightly. In fact, they proposed trading one week of cold weather vacation for a lengthier spring break. The editorial makes note of the Jimmy Carter effect:

Some have speculated that there is an economic rationale for the longer winter break. By keeping the dorms closed until the very end of January, the school saves money on a week’s worth of heating costs. While we don’t have any hard data on how much money the current schedule saves relative to our proposed alternative schedule, we are optimistic that the benefit of the longer break to students justifies the cost.

Granted, five weeks is a crazy-long winter break. Most of you likely have anywhere between two to three weeks at your disposal, and we’re guessing you wouldn’t trade a minute of it. Make the most of it. And however you celebrate, don’t forget to take a moment, gaze out at the night sky, set your sights on the North Star, and say a quiet word of thanks to Jimmy Carter.

Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, Glad Tidings, Merry Festivus, and everything else that’s fit to print on a Hallmark card. Have an awesome winter break, and we’ll see you on the other side.