CHRISTMAS and Easter are the most sacred Christian...

GALLIMAUFRY

April 16, 1994

CHRISTMAS and Easter are the most sacred Christian holidays. One has a fixed date, the other floats around the secular calendar within a range of almost five weeks. Why? asks The Economist.

It just sort of happened. There is little evidence either in history or theology to support Dec. 25 as Jesus' birthday, The bTC Economist observes. The western churches didn't even adopt that date until some 400 years later, and some eastern churches celebrate it in January.

Somehow the urge to fix a date for Easter never struck church leaders in the early centuries of Christianity. The Council of Nicaea in 325 set the date as the first full moon of spring, which could fall any time between March 22 and April 25.

Astronomers note the real moon doesn't behave that way. The calculation, according to The Economist, is based on a hypothetical moon that circles the earth in 29 days one month, 30 days another. "This was a world of less trade and little travel," The Economist notes.

"Precise time barely mattered."

It matters more now, at least in the secular world. Easter can be the first warm-weather holiday of the year, or the last chance for winter sports in the upper altitudes. So many secular holidays are now arranged for the convenience of the tourist business and its customers, why not Easter?

Sacrilege? The Economist doesn't think so. Since Good Friday and Easter are public holidays in much of western Europe, and the largest Christian denominations are based there, they might celebrate "the dawn of the third millennium with the burial of this absurd relic of the past."

* * *

IT COMES AS no surprise that U.S. school children regularly flunk current-affairs quizzes. A new survey shows they don't get any better as adults.

The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press recently surveyed people in eight nations on their attitudes toward the press. It asked five questions about world leaders or events.

More than a third of Americans (37 percent) couldn't answer even one question correctly. Only the Spanish came close (32 percent). The other countries were Germany (3 percent could give no answer), Italy (18 percent), Britain (22 percent), France (23 percent), Canada (27 percent) and Mexico (28 percent).

Fewer than half of the Americans (42 percent) could answer two or more of the questions, compared with 90 percent of the Germans.

The questions: Which country is threatening to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Which group recently reached a peace accord with Israel? Which ethnic group has conquered much of Bosnia? Who is the president of Russia? Who is U.N. secretary general?

If you regularly read this page and can't answer all of these questions, please don't tell us. It would break our hearts.

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