Archive for December 25th, 2010

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
–  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As I discussed in my column of December 21st, there have been winter solstice festivals for at least as long as there has been agriculture, and perhaps longer than that; even hunter-gatherer cultures in the temperate zones would have been adversely affected by winter and would therefore have feared the sun’s “death” and rejoiced in his return.  But the story of the Western celebration we now call Christmas begins in ancient Greece with the festival called Lenaea, whose origin stretches back to the beginning of the third millennium BCE.  At this time the primitive Aegean peoples were still very worried about the coming winter and so the festival we now observe as that of peace and goodwill was at that time anything but.

As JustStarshine explained in her Yule essay, the first solstice-season gifts were not exchanged between humans but rather offered to the gods in order to placate them and thereby induce them to restore warmth, vegetation and life.  And in the ancient Middle East, as in so many other cultures, that meant living sacrifice…and the most valuable form of sacrifice to the ancients was that of a human.  At Lenaea, women (the givers of life and representatives of Gaea, the Earth Mother) would drink wine, work themselves into a religious frenzy and go out into the forest, running wild until they encountered a lone hunter from another tribe, whom they would then literally tear to pieces and devour so as to restore fertility to the earth.  Afterwards, a newborn male baby was dedicated as a symbol of the reborn Dionysos, god of the vines which were their most important crop.  Of course the festival always worked, and the sun soon began to increase in strength again, but as the Greeks evolved they began to find human sacrifice repugnant; the human victim was replaced by a wild bull or goat (the sacrifice must be male to identify with the dying god), and the myth of Tantalus arose to demonstrate the repugnance of human sacrifice and cannibalism to the gods.  Note that the story specifies the time of the abhorrent sacrifice as soon after the rape of Persephone, thus tying it to the mythological origin of the seasons.  But even in its earliest form Lenaea featured three elements which are still essential to the Christmas celebration:  feasting, drinking and veneration of a newborn baby as a god.

Eventually, as the Greeks became confident that sun and vegetation would return without such ghastly appeasement, the sacrifice became a goat which was killed by a priest and then cooked and prepared for the feast rather than devoured raw.  The women became funeral mourners and presenters of the baby selected to represent the newborn god, but the memory of the terrible old ritual was preserved in the myth of the Maenads.  By the 5th century BCE Kronia (the festival of Kronos, god of time) had been added just before the solstice, and eventually most of the solstice celebration became attached to it rather than Lenaea (which became a formal festival rather than a popular one).  When the Romans “borrowed” much of Greek culture and religion, Kronos was identified with their popular and important harvest-god Saturn, while Dionysos was conflated with the Roman wine god Bacchus (who did not symbolize nearly as important an idea to the Romans as he had to the Greeks).  Thus, though both Kronia and Lenaea were adopted into Roman culture (as Saturnalia and Brumalia, respectively), the former proved much more popular and soon grew from its original one day (December 17th) to an entire week (December 17th-23rd).  Saturnalia was celebrated with the usual feasting and drinking, and also with a reversal of the social order (masters waiting on servants, an idiot being declared the ruler of the celebration, etc) to symbolize the reversal of the sun’s course.  It is also in Saturnalia that the tradition of giving a gift to the gods (i.e. a sacrifice) became the giving of gifts to each other.

When Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar in 46 BCE, he established the official first day of the sun’s return (astronomical winter) as December 25th; the solstice itself therefore usually occurred on the 24th or sometimes the 23rd.  But because the Julian calendar did not adequately compensate for the slight difference between 365 days and one year, the actual date of the solstice slowly drifted backwards and by the beginning of the 4th century it usually occurred on the 21st rather than the 24th, making the first day of winter the 22nd rather than the 25th.  But the Romans were a tidy, well-organized people and couldn’t let a little thing like that bother them; the birthday of Sol, the sun, had been declared as December 25th by Julius Caesar and so it stayed even when the actual event moved.

The Roman Empire was vast and home to many different local cults, a number of which spread empire-wide thanks to the well-developed Roman infrastructure; the three most important of these for our purposes were the cult of Isis, that of the Persian sun-god Mithra, and Christianity.  We’ve already talked about Isis on November 3rd and December 23rd and we’ll get to Christianity in the next paragraph, but for now let’s talk about Mithra.  Being a sun-god he was born at the winter solstice, springing up full-grown and armed from a rock.  The miraculous event was witnessed by shepherds, and they greeted the newborn god with gifts from their flocks and harvests.  Mithra was very popular with warriors, and his cult became so widespread in the legions that the Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) decreed the worship of a new deity named Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) who was a combination of Mithra with the minor Roman god Sol and the Syrian sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus had been a priest in his youth.  The god’s festival was (as you might expect) celebrated on the official date established by Julius Caesar, December 25th.  Despite Elagabalus’ short reign the cult of Sol Invictus proved popular and soon absorbed many smaller cults of sun or warrior gods; the Emperor Aurelian later declared him the chief god of the Empire with the intention of giving all Roman subjects a single god they could worship in addition to (rather than instead of) their own gods.  In 274 he declared the festival of Sol Invictus to be a major Empire-wide holiday, and transferred the old Saturnalia celebrations to the new festival.

Christianity was, of course, quite popular in the Empire by this time, and the association of Jesus with Sol Invictus was so natural that it quickly became an established fact, much to the consternation of church leaders.  By the beginning of the 4th century many Roman Christians celebrated the birth of Christ on December 25th, thus giving the public holiday their own private meaning; earlier writings on the subject theorize that Jesus was born sometime in the spring.  And when the Empire was Christianized a few years later, the Sol Invictus festival seamlessly turned into Christmas, with all traditions intact and the Christian nativity myth added to it.  Incidentally, the date of the solstice continued to drift backward in the calendar, so by the time Pope Gregory XIII ordered calendric reform in 1582 it was occurring on December 12th!  When Gregory corrected the discrepancy, he only had it calculated back to 325 (the year of the Council of Nicea), by which time a three-day error had already accumulated as mentioned earlier; but since Jesus was not regarded as a sun god it hardly mattered that Christmas wasn’t on the day of the reborn sun any longer.

The Church fathers weren’t too happy about Christ’s birthday being celebrated with pagan rituals, but there wasn’t much they could do about it; the people wanted their winter festival and they got it despite repeated efforts by priests (and after the Reformation, even more vicious assaults by Protestant ministers) to discourage it.  As the Church expanded into the Germanic and Celtic countries, their native celebrations merged with Christmas and brought in such traditions as the Yule log, Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe, etc (which we already mentioned on the 21st) and also caroling and the Christmas pageant or pantomime (which we’ll talk about tomorrow).  We also discussed the origins of Santa Claus on the 6th and the modern commercialization of the holiday yesterday.  And so arose Christmas as we know it, the end product of a long series of transformations from a terrifying ritual enacted to avert ecological disaster to the traditional celebration of peace and joy to the modern commercial festival of consumerism.  Personally, I think we should’ve quit while we were ahead, so I’ll just keep observing the traditional love-and-goodwill way and leave the frenzied fighting for holiday bargains to the modern Maenads.

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