Monday, 28 December 2009

Merry... Saturnalia? (lessons from history 3, festive edition)

or the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’, normally referred to as Sol Invicta. December has always been a month of celebration. With the sun getting lower and lower there has always been a tendency to try to make sure the sun does actually come back. Plus it’s cold, dark and food is short, so a celebration is quite nice to keep everyone’s spirits up. Celebrating the winter solstice has long been a feature of human society.

Christmas is no different. The date of Christmas is supposed to be the date of Jesus’ birth, but this is probably not the case. Festivals in late December had long been a feature of the Roman world; in fact there were at least two of them.

The first one was called Saturnalia. It took place in late December and saw the exchange of gifts and the relaxing of formalities. In fact it was tradition to reverse social roles; the wealthy were expected to pay the rent for those who couldn’t afford it. Master and slave exchanged clothes, family households threw dice to decide who would play the role of family monarch. Overall, a rather Christmassy affair.

Saturnalia was originally a festival to celebrate the end of the autumn planting season. It came later and later as the years went on and the scale of the festivities also increased. By the birth of Jesus it was a two day festival around mid-December. A hundred years later it lasted for a week. Changes to the Roman calendar placed the festival at 25th December, around the date of the winter solstice. From the third century AD there were public banquets in celebration of Saturnalia. The authorities tried in vain to restrict the festivities. By the end of the first century however they had embraced the festival and emperors started using it as a tool to improve their own popularity by putting on typically lavish celebrations at their own expense.

Even with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century, Saturnalia continued to be celebrated. The Roman Empire did not turn Christian overnight. The majority of the empire remained Pagan for years after the official religion became Christian.

The second contender for the Roman forerunner for Christmas is called the festival of dies natalis solis invicti It was not actually a roman festival to start with, but originated in Syria as a celebration of the God Mithras. Typically of the Roman Empire, the cult was soon assimilated into the Roman Parthenon. Celebrations of Sol Invicti took place on the 25th of December, the day after the winter solstice on the Julian calendar. It was first introduced to Rome in the late third century and took over many of the features of Saturnalia. Sol Invicti is linked with the monotheistic cult of Mithras, which strongly resembled Christianity and indeed many of the non-biblical catholic rituals; celebrating a festival on 25th December being one of them, derive from this cult.

When the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, the new Christian religion had to be made to fit with current religious practices. Christianity was made more acceptable by simply not changing much for most people. This cynical pragmatism does not however indicate a lack of belief, simply an acceptance of the difficulties of imposing such a radical change on people.

Fear not though, there is some Jewish basis for having Jesus birthday on 25th December. In Judaism the time of a prophet’s death is often associated with the time of their conception, so if Jesus was conceived in late March, he would be born in late December.

Why am I telling you this you ask? Because I can and because knowledge is always good to have. It’s Christmas, so my gift to you all is something to impress family and friends with next year; knowledge of the roman origins of Christmas. All that remains is for me to wish you all a very happy Sol Invicti and hope that Santa gave you lots of pressies. Maybe next year I’ll talk about why Santa Clause is part of the Christmas festivities. Meanwhile, goodbye the 00’s next time I write it will be 2010. Isn’t that exciting?

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