Optimo dierum! – Ancient winter festivals

By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam

It should come as no surprise to most that the festival of Christmas, as practised by Europeans, did not come into existence at this time of year by itself. Long before the supposed birth of the Nazarene, ancient cultures celebrated a number of winter festivals. Nor is this acknowledgment necessarily a new one; in 1560 the new Church of Scotland issued its First Book of Doctrine (whose authors included John Knox), which declared that ‘the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady’ were the inventions of papists as they had no basis ‘in God’s scriptures’. Christmas was clearly an invention of the Church, but it is also clear that this invention was not without its own sources even if they were more pagan than biblical.

How then did this monotheistic religion come to place one of the key celebrations of the year at a similar time as polytheistic faiths were also celebrating? The traditional story, principally promulgated by Heinrich Usener in 1889, is of convenience and compromise. The growth in prominence of the sun god Sol Invictus after his cult was made official by the Emperor Aurelian at the end of the third century posed issues for the developing Christian Church. His feast and other rituals c.25th December proved resiliently popular amongst newly baptised Christians. As a result, allusions of the sun were incorporated into depictions of Jesus and his birth came to be associated with the traditional birth of the sun at the time of Sol Invictus celebrations. This hypothesis has been significantly problematised since, principally in that credible evidence for celebrations of Sol Invictus don’t occur around the c.25th solstice (the nearest celebration being the 11th December with other festivities in August and October). The other traditional interpretation of the selection of this date is that it is separate from pagan holidays, and instead the date of birth was calculated using the date of conception. Supposedly, the Church sometime before the early fourth century added an even nine months from the conception day of the 25th March (The Annunciation) to arrive at the birth of Christ. While this might be seen as giving more agency and independence to the Church in selecting 25th December, it is far too convenient that these two days also happened to be the vernal equinox and winter solstice. Asides from evidence of such a calculation being flimsy, as C.P.E. Nothaft has stated, this theory ‘merely offers a post-hoc rationalization of a date that had been originally chosen for different reasons’. There has yet to be an entirely convincing theory of why this date was selected; there is not
enough evidence to indicate that Christmas was a simple appropriation of an existing festivity but at the same time it is clear that its origins were not without influence from existing celebrations of the winter solstice.

So what were ancient cultures generally celebrating at this time of year? Perhaps the best known of the festivities is the Roman celebration of Saturnalia which is often uncritically confused with the celebrations of Sol Invictus. The festivity dates from well before the earliest origins of Christianity, even before the fall of the republic it had had time to be significantly reformed. After 217 BC the festivity, which had traditionally followed Roman customs, began to take on Greek characteristics including banqueting, sacrifices in the Hellenistic style, and the shouting of “io Saturnalia”, all of which came to dominate the festival in the following centuries. The festival, which occurred every year from the 17th to the 23rd of December, was very popular, with Catullus describing it as “optimo dierum” (the best of days). Work came to a halt and public functions were generally suspended. The poet Lucian of Samosata writes in the voice of Saturn himself in describing the festivity in his poem of the same name: “During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … such are the functions over which I preside.”

Meanwhile, further north, the festival of Yule was celebrated by the Germanic peoples both before and after the Roman Empire until the Christian church attempted to stamp it out. This twelve-day festival was closely associated, like Celtic festivities, with the time of the winter solstice with the very word Yule supposedly deriving its name from descriptions of sun and light (or, at this time of year, the lack thereof). While Saturnalia bears many familiar hallmarks of Christmas, such as public holidays, feasting and, gift giving, Yule is more reminiscent of what one might expect from a winter religious festival. In most variations similar practices of ritual slaughter of animals and feasting prevailed, but usually blood was daubed upon the fields to encourage good harvest for the next year. Though Saturn was an agricultural deity, it was but one of his many roles; Yule by contrast was a very focussed event (as best as can be discerned from descriptions of it by Romans and Christians) that is easily understandable in the context of northern Europe in the winter where one might be forgiven for fearing the Sun would never return.

While we might never know precisely how modern Christmas originated as a celebration, it is clearly a creature born out of many early European influences. Naturally many other culture not described here had their own winter celebrations that may also have contributed to our modern celebration, particularly Levantine ones. However, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest why one of the key days of feasting, drinking, and socialising occurred at the darkest and coldest time of the year – the rest is surely convenience.


Image: Drawing from the Calendar of Philocalus depicting the month of December- public domain via wikimedia commons.

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