Return to Saturnalia
Sol Invictus and Christmas
"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings."
The worship of the Sun (Sol) was indigenous to the Romans, who had a shrine to Sol Indiges on the Quirinal that was said to have been established by Tatius, king of the Sabines, the first inhabitants of the hill, who, after the rape of the Sabine women, reconciled with Romulus and ruled jointly (Quintillian, Institutio Oratoria, I.7.12; Varro, On the Latin Language, V.10). And there was a temple to Sol (as well as one to the Moon) in the Circus Maximus, where chariot races took place under the auspices of these dieties (Tacitus, Annals, XV.74; Tertullian, De Spectaculis, VIII.1). Both the feast on the Quirinal Hill and the foundation date of the temple were in August, when the heat of the sun was most intense.
In AD 219, not long after Elagabalus had arrived from Syria, where he had been the hereditary priest of the sun god Elagabal, he introduced the cult of Sol Invictus to Rome. Elagabalus enlarged the temple of Jupiter Ultor on the Palatine and rededicated it (the Elagabalium) to the unconquerable Sun. Indeed, he sought "to abolish not only the religious ceremonies of the Romans but also those of the whole world, his one wish being that the god Elagabalus should be worshipped everywhere" (Historia Augusta, VI.7; Herodian, V.7; Dio, LXXIX.11).
When the young emperor was assassinated three years later, the cult was suppressed, to be reestablished half a century later by the emperor Aurelian, who erected a magnificent temple to Sol in the Campus Agrippae (Historia Augusta, XXV.6, XXXV.3, XXXIX.6; Aurelius Victor, XXXV.7; Eutropius, IX.15.1). Presumably, it was dedicated in AD 274, a year after the emperor returned from the conquest of Palmyra, where he had beheld "a divine form" (Sol) support him in the battle against Zenobia (XXV.3,5). Thereafter, Aurelian identified himself as the personification of the god, who was proclaimed the divine protector of the emperor. The feast of the winter solstice, when the dark days of winter began to lengthen and lighten, was known as Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the invincible Sun. (Mithras was another Eastern solar deity whose feast day was celebrated on December 25, its rites introduced to Rome in the first century AD by Cilician pirates, Plutarch, Life of Pompey, XXIV.5.)
In AD 312, as Constantine was about to fight the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he too perceived a sign, a "a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun" (Eusebius, Life, I.28) to which he attributed his victory. It was Constantine who decreed in AD 321 that, with an exception for farmers, Sunday was to be a day of rest. "On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed" (Codex Justinianus, III.12.2). The resurrection of Christ also was said to have occurred on a Sunday, that is, the day after the Jewish Sabbath (cf. Mark 15:42, 1 Corinthians 15:3). And in AD 386, Theodosius decreed that Sunday was holy (Codex Theodosianus, II.8.18). It would seem a natural association, therefore, to identify the birth of Jesus, the "Sun of righteousness," with that of the Sun itself.
The first certain record associating December 25 with the birthday of Sol Invictus is the Chronography of AD 354 where, in the part known as the Philocalian Calendar, VIII Kal. Jan. is identified as N INVICTI CM XXX (Natalis Invicti; CM abbreviates circenses missus or circus race, of which there were to be thirty that day). Here, too, is the earliest reference to December 25 as the birthday of Jesus. In a commemoration of Christian martyrs, the notation for VIII Kal. Jan. is natus Christus in Betleem Judeae ("Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea"). Because the Depositio Martyrum was completed in AD 336, the first celebration of Christmas can be dated to that year as well. In the list of consuls, there also is the note dominus Iesus Christus natus est VIII kal. Ian.
Mark and Paul make no reference to when Jesus was born, and Matthew and Luke do not mention the date. Nor does Clement of Alexander, when referring to the day of Jesus' birth, include December 25 among the possibilities. "There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus [2 BC], and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon [the Egyptian month, May 20]....others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21]" (Stromata, I.21). Indeed, the church did not agree upon December 25 as the Nativity of Jesus until the fifth century.
Even then, the winter solstice, which coincided with the Christian festival, still was recognized. Leo I (the Great, AD 440-461) was repeatedly obliged to admonish the faithful not to honor the sun on the very doorsteps of the old basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, which was oriented so that the sun, rising from the east, would shine in through the doors and illuminate the apse.
"When the sun rises at daybreak, there are some people so foolish as to worship it from the highest elevations; even some Christians think they are acting piously by following this practice, so that before entering the basilica of St. Peter the apostle, dedicated to the only living and true God, when they have gone up the steps leading to the porch at the main entrance, they turn around to face the rising sun and, inclining their heads, bow in honor of the brilliant disk. This behavior, partly due to the vice of ignorance and partly to the spirit of paganism, upsets and saddens us very much. Even if some of them do worship the creator of that beautiful light rather than the light itself, which is a creature, they should still abstain from giving the appearance of that worship, because if someone who has turned away from the cult of the gods notices the same custom among us, would that person not return to the old beliefs thinking that probably Christians and nonbelievers are doing the same thing?"
"Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honour, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun. Such men's hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honour to the luminaries that minister to the world. Let not Christian souls entertain any such wicked superstition and portentous lie."
Sermon XXII: On the Feast of the Nativity, II (Pt. VI)
Three centuries later, the papacy still was confronted with the remnants of pagan custom. In AD 742, Boniface, apostle and archbishop of Germany, reproached Zacharias, complaining that his attempt to convert the heathen there was being thwarted by the behavior of Christians in Rome.
"Because the sensual and ignorant Allemanians, Bavarians and Franks see that some of these abuses which we condemn are rife in Rome, they think that the priests there allow them, and on that account they reproach us and take bad example. They say that in Rome, near the church of St. Peter, they have seen throngs of people parading the streets at the beginning of January of each year, shouting and singing songs in pagan fashion, loading tables with food and drink from morning till night, and that during that time no man is willing to lend his neighbour fire or tools or anything useful from his own house. They recount also that they have seen women wearing pagan amulets and bracelets on their arms and legs and offering them for sale. All such abuses witnessed by sensual and ignorant people bring reproach upon us here and frustrate our work of preaching and teaching. Of such matters the Apostle says reprovingly: 'You have begun to observe special days and months, special seasons and years. I am anxious over you: has all the labour I have spent on you been useless?' [Galatians 4:10]" (Letter of Boniface to Pope Zacharias on His Accession to the Papacy).
"A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts....What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh. In this feast namely Epiphany, holy Easter, Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn't been born according to the flesh, he wouldn't have been baptised, which is Epiphany. He wouldn't have been crucified, which is Easter. He wouldn't have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow—these feasts of ours are born."
John Chrysostom, Homily VI: On St. Philogonius (23-24)
Half a century after the Philocalian Calendar had commemorated the first celebration of Christmas in the West, John Chrysostom delivered his homily on the feast day of Philogonius, bishop of Antioch, who had died some sixty years earlier. It was delivered on December 20, probably in AD 386. The day and month are confirmed by the fact that Chrysostom is anticipating the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas), which was to occur in five days' time, when he delivered another homily, In diem natalem, in which he remarks that it has been less than ten years since the festival had been introduced at Antioch.
At about the same time, on Christmas day in AD 380, Gregory of Nazianzus delivered a sermon at Constantinople on the Theophany (the Epiphany or manifestation) of Christ, which the Eastern churches of Egypt and Asia Minor traditionally celebrated on January 6. (The Western church celebrates January 6 as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the visitation of the Magi in Bethlehem. Eventually, the time between Christmas and Epiphany would become known as the twelve days of Christmas.) "Today is the feast of God's Appearing, or of the Nativity: both names are used, both titles given to the one reality....The name of the feast, then, is 'Theophany' because he has appeared, but 'Nativity' because he has been born" (Oration, XXXVIII.2-3).
Indeed, Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis who died in AD 403, continued to argue that January 6 was the date of Jesus' birth. "Greeks, I mean idolaters, celebrate this day on the eighth before the Kalends of January [December 25], which Romans call Saturnalia....For this division between the signs of the zodiac, which is a solstice, comes on the eighth before the Kalends of January, and the day begins to lengthen because the light is receiving its increase. And it completes a period of thirteen days until the eighth before the Ides of January [January 6], the day of Christ's birth" (Panarion, IV.22.5-6; also 22.17-18 "For the magi themselves reached Bethlehem...on this very day of the Epiphany, and offered their gifts, the myrrh, the gold and the frankincense" and 24.1 "For Christ was born in the month of January, that is, on the eighth before the Ides of January—in the Roman calendar this is the evening of January fifth, at the beginning of January sixth").
In the Julian reform of the Roman calendar, December 25, the eighth day after the Kalends of January (VIII Kal. Jan.), was recognized as the winter solstice. Nine months earlier, March 25 was the vernal equinox, the eighth day before the Kalends of April (VIII Kal. Apr.), which marked the beginning of spring. These dates were embraced by the church in its calculation of the birth date of Jesus. Because he was deemed to be perfect, his life was thought to be complete as well and to comprise a whole number of years. March 25 was believed to be the date of his conception (the Annunciation to Mary) and, exactly nine months later, December 25 his Nativity. The date of Jesus' conception and crucifixion, therefore, were thought to have occurred on the same day of the year, March 25 (e.g, Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, VIII.17; Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 4:23; Augustine, On the Trinity, IV.5; Dionysius Exiguus, Argumenta Paschalia, XV). Fittingly, this also was the day on which the world itself was believed to have been created.
"Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday....the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse the day."
Origen, Homilies on Leviticus (VIII.3.2)
Unlike the Romans, who celebrated the dies natales of family and friends with gifts and banquets, Christians and Jews seemingly did not recognize birthdays. Josephus remarks that "the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess" (Against Apion, II.26). Rather, it was the anniversary of one's death that tended to be observed (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:1, "the day of death [is better] than the day of one's birth"). The festival of Easter, for example, was celebrated much earlier than Christmas.
In correlating the conception of John the Baptist with the birth of Jesus, John Chrysostom calculated that Elizabeth herself must have conceived on the Day of Atonement, September 24, when her husband Zechariah was serving as priest in the temple (cf. Luke 1:26, where she is "in the sixth month" of her own pregnancy when Mary conceives). John's birth, therefore, was June 24 and that of Jesus six months later on December 25. The one-day discrepancy between the two dates can be attributed to how the Roman calculated the days of the month. There is one less day in June than in December, as there is when counting the six months between June 24 (VIII.Kal.Jul.) and December 25 (VIII.Kal.Jan.).
John was understood to be preparing the way for Jesus (cf. John 3:30, "He must increase, but I must decrease"), just as the sun begins to diminish at the summer solstice and forecasts the eventual arrival of winter. One can see, then, that Christian feasts were aligned with the four traditional turning points of the solar year: the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice, the conception of Jesus at the spring equinox, the birth of John the Baptist at the summer solstice, and the conception of John at the autumn equinox.
Together with the birthday of Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20), one other is mentioned in the New Testament: that of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, whose marriage to his brother's wife Herodias had been denounced by John. When her daughter Salome danced before the king at his birthday feast and was found pleasing, she was promised whatever she might ask. At the instigation of her mother, she demanded the head of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6ff, Mark 6:17ff; Luke 9:7ff; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.5.2).
Although the passage by Origen quoted above is better known, Arnobius, writing a generation later, ridicules the pagan gods and, in so doing, provides some insight into the religious practices of the early fourth century.
"It is the birthday of Tellus; for the gods are born, and have festal days on which it has been settled that they began to breathe.... Being, as I have said unable to know all these things, or to discern them by any power of reason, they [men] fell into these fanciful beliefs, so that they fashioned gods after themselves, and gave to these such a nature as they have themselves, in actions, circumstances, and desires.... They see that they are affected by the games, and think that the minds of the celestials are soothed by enjoying games; and because they have pleasure in refreshing themselves with warm baths, they think that the cleanness produced by bathing is pleasing to the gods above. We men gather our vintages, and they think and believe that the gods gather and bring in their grapes; we have birthdays, and they affirm that the powers of heaven have birthdays" (Adversus Nationes, "The Seven Books Against the Heathen," VII.32, 34).
The conflation of Sun and Son can be seen in the Christmas hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" where in the fifth stanza is the verse "Hail the Sun of righteousness! / Light and life to all he brings." Originally written in 1739 by Charles Wesley (the brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church) as a Hymn for Christmas-Day, it was changed by George Whitefield to "Hail the Son of Righteousness!"
In 1753, Whitefield also altered the first line of the hymn from "Hark how all the welkin rings" to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," which, although an improvement, doubtless must have irritated Wesley, who believed that heaven (the meaning of "welkin") rang with joy. He also understood the angel (and a multitude of the heavenly host) in Luke 2:13-14 to be "saying, Glory to God in the highest," not singing the words.
In the Preface (VII) to his 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (which did not include the hymn by Charles), John Wesley beseeched those who would alter his lyrics (or those of his brother) to "let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse; or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page; that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men."
The picture above is a detail from a marble altar dedicated to the Sun god. From Palmyra (Syria), it dates from the second half of the first century AD and now is in the Galleria Lapidaria (Capitoline Museums, Rome). The first line reads "Sacred to the most holy Sun." The eagle was thought to be the messenger of the god.
References: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (1990) by Michele Renee Salzman; Toward the Origins of Christmas (1995) by Susan K. Roll (who translates the seventh sermon of Leo; also, "The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question" by Susan K. Roll, in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (2000) edited by Maxwell Johnson); A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1758) by George Whitefield (this is the seventh of thirty-six editions); Aurelian and the Third Century (1999) by Alaric Watson; John Chrysostom (1999) by Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen; Homilies on Leviticus 1-16 (1990) translated by Gary Wayne Barkley; "Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult" (1992) by Kathryn Argetsinger, Classical Antiquity, 11(2), 175-193; Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution (1889/1903) by L Duchesne; The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba and Lebuin, together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a Selection from the Correspondence of St. Boniface (1954) by C. H. Talbot; Gregory of Nazianzus (2006) by Brian E. Daley; The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (1987, 1994) translated by Frank Williams..
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