A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, December 26, 2011

χmas Time is Here By-Golly

As dependable as holly and mistletoe are the old fundamentalist claims that Christmas is "really" just a pagan festival.  In a recent Letter to the Editor of our local paper, a writer whom we will call "Mr. G" called it "bizarre" to acknowledge a deity with a "mere human construct" like a calendar.  By this we must suppose that cathedrals, statues, stained glass windows, Handel's Messiah, and the designations BC and AD are "bizarre."  Well, tastes vary, we suppose. 

This post is a somewhat expanded version of my reply, which appeared a couple days later.  
Mr. G claimed that Dec. 25 was the pagan Roman celebration of the winter solstice.  But this cannot be true for the excellent reason that:
  1. the Romans did not celebrate solstices and equinoxes, and 
  2. Dec. 25 was not the solstice!  

Regarding #1, the Romans paid far more attention to the Kalends and the Ides, which marked the New Moon and the Full Moon, resp.  (The Nones marked the quarter moon.  Oddly, the three-quarter moon was not officially noted.)  The ancient Roman calendar was essentially a lunar one.  Dates were specified as "days prior to" one of these markers, with the marker itself as day I.  (They did not have a 0.) Hence, Pridie Kal. Ian., the "day before" the Kalends of January was considered as "two days before the Kalends" because the Kalends itself was counted as Day I.  Thus, VIII Kal. Ian. was 25 Dec., etc.  
Regarding #2, hard to say.  The Julian calendar was screwed up for thirty-six years after it was implemented.  (They were leap year-ing every third year!  Oops.  Our bad.  It was that Roman "inclusive count" again.  The pontifices included the initial year as one of the four years, and so it became de facto a three year cycle.)   And as time went on, their essentially lunar calendar got more out of synch with the solar.  Augustus corrected the error by ordering the next three leap years to be skipped.  The lists of Republican festivals puts the solstice on 21 Dec., but many bloggers and others state that the solstice actually was on 25 Dec.  The Julian calendar added three extra leap days to February every four hundred years. It's late night/early morning as I write this, but it seems to me that the extra leap year days would push all subsequent dates forward wrt the solar year, and so the solstice would slide backward through the calendar. 
However, no Roman feasts fell on Dec 25.  The biggest festival, Saturnalia, ended several days earlier, usually on the 19th.  Mr. G fudged a bit in his letter on the coincidence of dates and widened his specification to "on or around" the Roman festival; but the Roman calendar was so thick with celebrations that pretty much any randomly chosen day in December would be "around" some Roman festival.  
The following are the festivals under the Republic for the month of December:
(ca. 3/4 Dec) Bona Dea - A women's festival of no fixed date. 
Non. Dec (5 Dec) Faunalia rustica (a "pagan" (i.e., rural) festival imported into the City)
III Id. Dec. (11 Dec) Agonia
Prid. Id. Dec. (12 Dec) Consualia
XVI Kal. Ian. (17 Dec) Saturnalia (usually 3 days, expanded or contracted in imperial times by various emperors.  A day of hilarity and noblesse oblige in which upper class people allowed lower class people to pretend to be powerful.  Included gift-giving.)
XIV Kal. Ian. (19 Dec) Opalia
XII Kal. Ian. (21 Dec) Divalia (center of the winter solstice; but not a sun-festival.)
X Kal. Ian. (23 Dec) Larentalia (a parentatio for the dead, spec. Larentia, a demi-god).
Kal. Ian (1 Jan)  Aesculapio, Vediovi in Insula and that takes us into January.

Mr. G then connected Christmas with the Feast of the Unconquered Sun

Clem Alexandria
Emperor Aurelian supposedly started this feast in AD 274, but St. Hippolytus referred to Dec. 25 as Christmas in AD 202/211, around seventy years earlierClement of Alexandria, a contemporary, also indicated 25 Dec.  It actually seems more likely that the Emperor was trying to co-opt the date from the already-existing Christian feast rather than vice versa!
It also seems that Sol Invictus was not pegged at 25 Dec until much later.  Aurelian's original inscription makes no mention of a date:
Soli invicto sacr.
pro salute et inco
lumitate perpetui
imp. Caes. L. Domi
ti Aureliani Pii Fel.
Aug. p.m., t. p. VI, cos.
III, p. p., proconsuli[s]

A doctoral dissertation on the cult of Sol by Steven Hijmans, here, states:
“there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25].  A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios” [p.588 & p.6 of pdf]
Hippolytus OTOH supposedly wrote:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th], the 4th day of the week [Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, [2 or 3BC] but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years.  He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th], the Day of Preparation, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar [29 or 30 AD], while Rufus and Roubellion and Gaius Caesar, for the 4th time, and Gaius Cestius Saturninus were Consuls.
which seems clear enough.  For a discussion of the text, see the above link for Hippolytus and also this one.  In any case, the first definite mention of 25 Dec. as Christmas (ca. AD 206) predates the first definite mention of 25 Dec. as Sol Invictus (AD 354) by about a century and a half!

So Why VIII Kal. Ian.?

A Jewish tradition supposedly held that great prophets entered the world on the same date they left it.  Calculations of Good Friday pegging off Great Passovers (those that fell on Sabbaths) yielded March 25 or April 6, depending on various calendrical assumptions.  If Christ was conceived on March 25, the Incarnation, then after a normal pregnancy Christmas would be Dec. 25, nine months later. 
Ditto for April 6→Jan 6.  Let's not forget the Orthodox Church.  People who insist that "the Christians picked 25 Dec in order to co-opt a Roman festival" forget that the bigger church of the East had started with a different  date. 
When all the planets line up, the world ends.
Again.  Cf. Mayan calendars and other
Both Hippolytus and Clement seem to have started from the common assumption that the world began with the spring equinox.  (This notion of constantly recurring celestial patterns was a given in the ancient world.  The pagans insisted that men were prisoners of these cycles [a quo, "astrology"] while the Christians claimed otherwise.)  What could be more natural than to suppose that God was incarnated on the anniversary of the creation of the world?  Remember, the ancient Christians were most concerned with the Incarnation and the Resurrection.  The date of Christmas was simply a mathematical fall-out from these. 

In short, Christians celebrated Christian festivals for Christian reasons, however bizarre this might have seemed to Mr. G. 

Pagan Trees, et al.

Lastly, Mr. G pointed out that various customs - gift-giving, decorated trees, etc. - were pagan customs before the Christians took them over.  Romans indeed exchanged gifts during Saturnalia, and Germans decked trees to celebrate important events, secular and sacred.  But Mr. G overlooked the fact that the Christians were Romans, Germans, et al.  Is it really so surprising if Roman Christians exchanged gifts at Christmas or German Christians decked trees to celebrate?  Or that these customs would spread beyond their ethnic origins into the wider Christendom?  It is neither an insidious paganism infiltrating the rites of the Whore of Babylon, nor a clever Christian plot to take over by co-opting pagan practices.  (It is often hard to distinguish a fundamentalist critique from an neo-"pagan"/atheist one.) 

Besides, the contention suffers from the Late Modern disease of literalism, or of formalism at the expense of substance.  Let's suppose that Adam shoves an old lady in front of a bus and Bruce shoves an old lady out of the way of a bus.  Can we really say there is no difference between them "because they both shove old ladies around"?  No, the external form of the action does not tell us the whole substance.  The two acts, while formally the same, are materially different. 

The same is true of German Christians decking trees or Egyptian Christians depicting Madonna-and-child in the familiar Isis-and-Horus pose.  Formally they are the same as the pagan practice, but substantially they are different.  Like Adam and Bruce shoving old ladies, what people do matters less than why they do it.


  1. I really love the way you refuse to be mean and couch all of your essays in humor and thoughtful musing! If you have a moment, I wrote a Christmas blog entry that tries to emulate your style while still making my point. ( ) Thanks for the great blog entries! I am looking forward to reading IN THE LION'S MOUTH soon...

  2. Unfortunately the homily I heard at Midnight Mass was the myth of the Dec 25th was specific to baptizing a Pagan feast. Not surprising since for example St. Anthony Messenger Press publishes a bulletin insert that asserts the same. This is the area that Mark Shea calls Pseudo-knowledge, something everybody knows that is false. I first heard it from my Uncle as a child.

    Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers recently wrote:

    "Sometimes Fundamentalists, secularists, and pagans argue that Christmas is just a pagan holiday that has been "baptized" by the Church. Accounts differ as to which one. Sometimes it is claimed that Christmas is based on Saturnalia or the birth of Sol Invictus ("the unconquerable sun").

    But Saturnalia wasn't celebrated on December 25th. It ran from December 17th to the 23rd. It was over and done with before the 25th.

    We do have records that suggest some pagans celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus on December 25th, but the first such record dates from the year A.D. 354 (on what is known as the Calendar of Filocalus or the Chronology of 354). The trouble is, even this source isn't fully explicit. It just says that December 25 was celebrated as the Natalis Invicti or the "Birthday of the Unconquerable One," without saying who that is.

    We also know that some Christians had been identifying December 25th as Jesus' birthday at least a century and a half before this time. Around A.D. 206, St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Commentary on Daniel that:

    "The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the kalends of January."

    In ancient Roman time reckoning, the kalends was the first day of the month, and if you count back eight days from January 1, you arrive at December 25.

    It's true that we don't know for sure when Jesus was born, and early Christian writers proposed a variety of dates for his birth, including December 25th. But what is remarkable, in light of modern claims, is that when they write about Christ's birth they never say things like, "Let's schedule his birthday here so that we can convert a bunch of pagans" or "Let's put it here so that we can subvert this pagan holiday."

    When they propose dates for his birth, they use arguments to support their view, and they honestly believe that he was born on the dates they propose."

  3. I for one am heartily sick of the "Neo-Pagans" who claim continuity with their Pagan predecessors as though there's some unbroken chain to the past rites of such old beliefs. Sorry, not likely. The fact they repeat the ahistorical drivel which surrounds Xmas like a miasma of ignorance is a sure sign they're casting around for an anchor point which doesn't exist.

  4. Disapproval would be folly ...

  5. There is also the fact that Romans, and thus Roman culture, were always a minority in their empire. The silly "Christmas is just Saturnalia" argument incorrectly assumes that the majority of the 60-100 million subjects of the Roman Empire celebrated Saturnalia.

  6. Actually, Orthodox Christmas is on Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar's December 25, which is now January 6th in the Gregorian calendar. We Catholics changed calendars, but not dates.

    The Orthodox celebrate Orthodox Epiphany on January 6 Julian, which is (I think) January 18 Gregorian.


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