Thursday, December 23, 2021

Why we celebrate Christmas on December 25

A lot of people know that this goes all the way back to the Roman Empire - not surprising when you think that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Emperors in the 320s AD.  But a lot of people mistakenly think that the date for Christmas was chosen to coincide with the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a goofy end of year celebration where slaves were given the opportunity to act as masters for a day (as long as they really didn't try to).  No, it was something different, and more important for the development of the early Church, something that grew out of one of the most difficult times in the Empire's history and came from one of their very greatest Emperors.

The third century AD was a terrible time for the Empire, with a succession of generals usurping the Imperial crown and the empire assaulted by external enemies like the great Persian king Sharpur II.  Things got so bad that the Empire split into three pieces - a "Gallic Empire" in the West comprising Britain, France, and Spain; the rich eastern provinces of Egypt and Syria falling under the domination of Queen Zenobia's oasis city state of Palmyra, and a rump Empire of Italy and Africa.  It was really possible for a moment that the Roman Empire would simply dissolve - the bonds holding it together looked too weak to hold.

A gold coin from Aurelian's reign
But the Empire was saved by emperor Aurelian, who brought the whole thing back together.  A grateful Senate awarded him the title "Restitutor Orbis" - Restorer of the World.  Mike Duncan in his great History Of Rome Podcast describes Aurelian as the Sandy Koufax of Roman Emperors - he didn't have the longest career or the most strikeouts or wins, but while he played he was simply unhittable - Left Hand Of God.  You really should listen to the first couple minutes of this podcast episode as it is Mike Duncan at his very best.

So in five short years Aurelian restored the Roman world.  But he wasn't just one of the best generals in Roman history, he was also a great statesman.  He turned his mind to why the Empire was so fragile; if he could knit it more tightly together he might be able to prevent a repeat breakup.  Aurelian believed that a big problem was that the Empire was a collection of diverse peoples - Gauls and Britons and Egyptians and Syrians who all had different cultures and beliefs.  In short, they had little in common other than the Emperor of the day and everyone had just seen how that had worked out.

And so Aurelian tried to overlay some commonality on his peoples.  Each worshiped their own local gods, but most of these religious systems were fairly flexible.  Aurelian introduced an Empire-wide cult, thinking that having some similarities would help create a common sense of Roman-ness.  Aurelian chose a cult that was popular with the Army since the closest thing that the Empire had to a single common institution throughout the Empire was the Army.

Sol Invictus was popular with the troops, the Unconquered Sun god.  Most parts of the Empire adopted this seamlessly as one of the many gods, although it seems that Aurelian seemed to believe that Sol Invictus was the only god who took many forms which were interpreted as the local deities. This was an emergent idea in the Ancient world and an expression in the chronicles say the one wax takes many moulds.

Aurelian introduced his cult on December 25, 274 AD and it became really the first Empire-wide holiday.   He succeeded in founding a common belief across the Empire, perhaps succeeded more than even he hoped.  Because the idea stuck: Emperor Constantine didn't just introduce Christianity. It's from him that we get the word Sunday, since he decreed that across the Empire the weekly day of rest would be the day of the sun - the dies Solis.

And so the early Church had a challenge from a popular cult, but this was also an opportunity for them. Sol Invictus was the first half step towards monotheism and identifying Jesus Christ with the unconquered sun didn't actually turn out to be all that hard for the early Church Fathers.  Indeed, what is Easter if not the celebration of the Unconquered Son?  December 25 stuck in the calendar.  It's been celebrated all the way down through the ages - ever since 274 AD.

It wasn't the silliness of Saturnalia that had to be co-opted, it was the Feast of the Nativity of the Unconquered Son.  May this week's feast day be festive indeed.  You might even want to offer a toast to Aurelian Restitutor Orbis. 


Aaron C. de Bruyn said...

...and yet God tells you how he wants to be worshipped and what his holy days are...and Christianity decides they know better and do their own things every year.

Goober said...

Aaron C - a quibble, if you'll forgive me...

the Bronze Age sheep herder that wrote the OT told us how God wants to be worshipped.

The Bible is not the inerrant word of God. If it were, it would not need interpretation, translation, or years of study to understand and properly follow. It would not be full of inconsistencies, scientific falsehoods, and morally atrocious acts held up as examples of piousness.

It would be a perfect tome of exquisite intelligence, impossible to misunderstand, with no need for interpretation, with profound scientific knowledge beyond what we even understand, today.

Instead of telling us that goats that look at striped sticks while conceiving will bear striped young, it would teach us about germ theory, genes, DNA, the universe, and beyond. It would contain answers for questions that we wouldn't even yet know to ask.

There wouldn't be hundreds of different religions, each sharding into thousands of competing factions and each convinced that they are uniquely correct in their interpretation of the absolute mess of contradictions, scientific falsehoods, and atrocious moral behavior presented as piety that is the Bible.

If the Bible were truly the Word of a Supreme, all-knowing, perfect being, there would be ONE RELIGION, and NO NEED to interpret, coerce, or torture different contextual viewpoints out of it in order to justify your stance on religion (which, let's face it, really is what it is because of where you were born on the planet, which, again, doesn't really seem to be the logical result of the existence of a supreme, all-knowing God that desired our worship).

Is there a God? Cannot be proven, either way. I'm willing to accept it, though.

Is it the God described in the Christian Bible? Absolutely not. Even the most superficial application of logic makes that completely impossible, without writing untold thousands of lengthy tomes of apologetics "explaining and interpreting" away all of the aforementioned, that cumulatively dwarf the Bible in total words, effort, and likewise inconsistency and contradiction.

STxAR said...

I really am weak on early church history. This was quite enjoyable to read. I am enlightened.

I feel kind of sorry for the peanut. I'll be praying that if he's serious, he'll find what he's looking for.. Beacuse, "without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a Rewarder of them that seek after Him". I know in my past, my unregenerate mind could not apprehend even the most basic understanding of God accurately. My mind had to be able to understand. And that is the work only the Holy can do.

Happy Christmas BP and QOTW. May it be a bright and wonderful day for you.

Jonathan H said...

Agreed and Amen.

Glen Filthie said...

Question, Goober? Did you even read that thing? 😆 I shouldn’t be a dink; I used to think like and listen to guys like you too. I won’t preach or lecture you… except to say… have a care. What you think you know and what you really know are two different things.

I think your account maybe sells the Roman conversion to Christianity short, BP. There’d have been far more to it than merely slapping on new faces to old Gods and renaming old holidays. Christianity spread so fast and far as it did because it was a better way to live and think. The idea of the Golden Rule was revolutionary at the time. It was a better deal for everyone. Contrary to the popular narrative, not all Christianity was about grift, money and power. I suppose nowadays a lot of it is… but in the early days, not so much.

libertyman said...

I never realized the impact that the change from the Julian calendar had on dates when it was changed to the Gregorian calendar, other than changing George Washington's date of birth.
If I understand it correctly, that is when December 25th became the day. Perhaps BP you could elaborate on this, please.

Richard said...

Not really OT but a tangent.

"Aurelian believed that a big problem was that the Empire was a collection of diverse peoples - Gauls and Britons and Egyptians and Syrians who all had different cultures and beliefs. In short, they had little in common other than the Emperor of the day and everyone had just seen how that had worked out."

This is really the problem that we have today and Aurelian is dead. His reforms can be said to last for 200 years before entropy asserted itself with the fall of the Western Empire but really the signs of dissolution long predated that.

TechieDude said...

Goober, what you are missing is free will. All over the new testament Jesus says "Those with eyes ought to see" or "those with ears ought to hear". You have free will, and a brain. Up to you to get it right.

We had a few priests in a parish I once belonged that were into the whole anthropological study of the times back then. Brought a depth to their homilies when they'd go into how people were back then and why the text says what it says. For instance, each gospel had an intended audience. This is why they are all slightly different.

Interesting thing one of them said about Christmas, very similar to this post, was that if the shepherds were in the field, Christmas was most likely in the spring, probably April if you line the stars up. December they'd be hunkered down. Another tidbit was that Joseph would have had family or friends wherever they traveled. They probably wouldn't have stayed a an "inn", since those were little more than covered courtyards. And that in all likelihood, the 'Manger' was probably the first floor of someone's house where the animals were also kept.

FredLewers said...

It's the Holy Ghost that brings understanding and clarity to the reader of the scriptures.