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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Christmas Rituals

Although Trump is pushing me to say "Happy Holidays," just out of spite.

Here we go again, and again, Valerie Tarico gives me the grounds to repeat myself (even as I assume her article is a rerun, not something original to this year).

Christmas has almost nothing whatsoever to do with "pagan" celebrations, Sumerian mythic tropes, or the "cult of virginity."  It probably involves from Hebraic tropes, but why is that an issue, unless you have a agenda against Judaism (a common problem in Christianity, but why give it credence?).  Anyway, she notes there is no mention of a Christmas celebration in the 3rd century, which is the first sound thing in her article( there is actually, as we will see; but not in Rome).  While she provides links to her own articles about Sumerian myths (she links to her own interview with a world religions scholar who makes no mention of Sumeria at all, so I don't know what she's even talking about there) and a "cult of virginity,"* she plunges into pure speculation and uninformed conjecture about "winter solstice celebrations" with no supporting links at all.  If this were one of my students' research papers, I'd pull out the red ink right there and start slashing.

First, let's stop this nonsense about Saturnalia and "Latin peoples" (there were no "Latin peoples" in Europe; there were Romans who spoke Latin, until the language died out.  The Church and the British kept it alive, but for radically different reasons.).  To do that, though, we have to unearth a great deal of history in a very short space.

Yes, Christians did start adopting pagan temples as places of worship, pagan heroes as saints (I can think of a couple of Irish saints off the top of my head), and pagan practices as Christian:

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.

They started that in the 4th century; but doing so is not the same thing as adopting pagan ideals, and the practice only came under critique about 500 years ago, by the Reformed movement of the Reformation.  That Christianity did not have its own practices, apart from the eucharist instituted by Paul, is not an indication that the practices and customs it did acquire are therefore tainted or even an indication of superstition (a word associated with falsity only by those who overlook their own rituals and superstitions.  Even the scholar Tarico interviewed uses the word without making it a perjorative, something Tarico can't quite bring herself to do, for all her claims of "rationality.").

Did Christmas have anything to do with Saturnalia?  No.  That was on December 17 to December 23, but by 354 C.E. it was only on December 17.  It was more like the Feast of Fools than anything we think of as a Christmas observance (and remember we're talking about a religious ceremony here, not a civic one.  Christmas as we know it is an amalgam of medieval practices (feasting, mostly, anymore) and Charles Dickens' childhood memories (Pickwick and Scrooge are the roots of our modern Christmas, as well as Clement Clarke Moore).  Saturnalia was a holiday on the Roman calendar (city of, not empire of) that held on as a holiday on the Roman calendar until the mid-5th century (curiously, Constantine did not see fit to convert it to a Christmas celebration.  Indeed, he was probably unaware of any concept of a Christ Mass at the time of his death):

December 17 was recognized as the date of the Saturnalia as late as AD 448, when it was notated in the ecclesiastical calendar or laterculus ("list") of Polemius Silvius. But now, deprived of its pagan significance, it is identified only as feriae servorum ("festival of the slaves").
By then Christmas had been observed on December 25 in Rome for at least 60 years, so I don't think they were confused about the dates.  So maybe it was "Natali invictii"?  Well, maybe, as the date is the same as Christmas.  However:

But even should a deliberate and legitimate "baptism" of a pagan feast be seen here no more than the transference of the date need be supposed. The "mountain-birth" of Mithra and Christ's in the "grotto" have nothing in common: Mithra's adoring shepherds....are rather borrowed from Christian sources than vice versa.
Mithra's shepherds is one of those "chicken or egg" problems, and Luke came before Mithra.  Maybe Tarico is connecting Mithra with Sumeria through Zoroastrianism, but that definitely came after Christianity.  Whatever link there is doesn't really mean anything.

If you noticed the date 354 C.E. and wondered why that year was singled out, be patient.  History is complicated and not really at all linear; we have to circle back and jump forward in order to put some things in context, and to begin to explain how things came to be.  So, to reiterate:  Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 to December 23, but by the mid 4th century it was only celebrated on one day, not several.  We used to have 12 days of Christmas, too (Shakespeare knew it; the familiar song knew it.  It was observed in rural Ireland into the 20th century.  Anybody today aware of it, outside that song?  Anybody today realize the song refers to actual calendar days, or what they are?  How quickly did that disappear?  In America, it never appeared at all.  Hmmmm.....).  And no, Saturnalia was never celebrated on December 25, and it never celebrated the "birth of the unconquerable sun."

So when did December 25 become the day observed for Christ's birth?

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.

Tarico jumps to the 7th century, but let's stay with the earliest centuries of the Church a bit longer.  history doesn't become simpler and less complicated the further back in time you go, and it isn't "made" just by the people you've heard of:

In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi ... that Christ was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November. Ephraem Syrus ....proves that Mesopotamia still put the birth feast thirteen days after the winter solstice; i.e. 6 January; Armenia likewise ignored, and still ignores, the December festival.... In Cappadocia, Gregory of Nyssa's sermons on St. Basil (who died before 1 January, 379) and the two following, preached on St. Stephen's feast (P.G., XLVI, 788; cf, 701, 721), prove that in 380 the 25th December was already celebrated there....

This is all in the late 4th century, a good 300 years before Pope Gregory wrote about converting the use of pagan temples.  As we will see, some authorities note the first mention of the date (25 December) in Rome was in 354; but the observation of a "Christ Mass" for the birth of the Savior came earlier, and did not originate in Rome.


In 385, Silvia of Bordeaux (or Etheria, as it seems clear she should be called) was profoundly impressed by the splendid Childhood feasts at Jerusalem. They had a definitely "Nativity" colouring; the bishop proceeded nightly to Bethlehem, returning to Jerusalem for the day celebrations. The Presentation was celebrated forty days after. But this calculation starts from 6 January, and the feast lasted during the octave of that date.... Cyril declares that his clergy cannot, on the single feast of Birth and Baptism, make a double procession to Bethlehem and Jordan.... He asks Julius to assign the true date of the nativity "from census documents brought by Titus to Rome"; Julius assigns 25 December.... But Julius died in 352, and by 385 Cyril had made no change; indeed, Jerome, writing about 411 (in Ezech., P.L., XXV, 18), reproves Palestine for keeping Christ's birthday (when He hid Himself) on the Manifestation feast. 

Lots of controversy over dates, in other words, well into the late 4th century.  I thought the date was chosen to take over Saturnalia.  No?


In Antioch, on the feast of St. Philogonius, Chrysostom preached an important sermon. The year was almost certainly 386, though Clinton gives 387, and Usener, by a long rearrangement of the saint's sermons, 388 (Religionsgeschichtl. Untersuch., pp. 227-240). But between February, 386, when Flavian ordained Chrysostom priest, and December is ample time for the preaching of all the sermons under discussion. (See Kellner, Heortologie, Freiburg, 1906, p. 97, n. 3). In view of a reaction to certain Jewish rites and feasts, Chrysostom tries to unite Antioch in celebrating Christ's birth on 25 December, part of the community having already kept it on that day for at least ten years....

Finally, though never at Rome, on authority he knows that the census papers of the Holy Family are still there. [This appeal to Roman archives is as old as Justin Martyr (First Apology 34-35) and Tertullian (Adv. Marc., IV, 7, 19). Julius, in the Cyriline forgeries, is said to have calculated the date from Josephus, on the same unwarranted assumptions about Zachary as did Chrysostom.] Rome, therefore, has observed 25 December long enough to allow of Chrysostom speaking at least in 388 as above (P.G., XLVIII, 752, XLIX, 351).


In 379 or 380 Gregory Nazianzen made himself exarchos of the new feast, i.e. its initiator, in Constantinople, where, since the death of Valens, orthodoxy was reviving. His three Homilies (see Hom. xxxviii in P.G., XXXVI) were preached on successive days (Usener, op. cit., p. 253) in the private chapel called Anastasia. On his exile in 381, the feast disappeared.

The Romans were quite pantheistic.  They never forced a Saturnalia observation on Jerusalem, or cared much about the worship of the God of Abraham going on there, so long as it didn't disturb the Pax Romana.  There is no record of a strong influence of the Saturnalia in Antioch or Constantinople.


[This is where it gets very complicated, so let's just cut to the chase:]

In the West the Council of Saragossa (380) still ignores 25 December .... Pope Siricius, writing in 385 to Himerius in Spain, distinguishes the feasts of the Nativity and Apparition; but whether he refers to Roman or to Spanish use is not clear.... By the time of Jerome and Augustine, the December feast is established, though the latter ... omits it from a list of first-class festivals. From the fourth century every Western calendar assigns it to 25 December. At Rome, then, the Nativity was celebrated on 25 December before 354; in the East, at Constantinople, not before 379, unless with Erbes, and against Gregory, we recognize it there in 330. Hence, almost universally has it been concluded that the new date reached the East from Rome by way of the Bosphorus during the great anti-Arian revival, and by means of the orthodox champions. 

But certainly not before the end of the 4th century, and not at all because of "Saturnalia."  First:  yes, Christians did start adopting pagan temples as places of worship, pagan heroes as saints (I can think of a couple of Irish saints off the top of my head), and pagan practices as Christian:

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.

To complicate matters further, let's go back to the very beginning of any reference to a mass celebrating the birth of Christ.  That occurs in Alexandria, which is not coincidentally in Egypt, where the culture proposed the significance of people at birth:  Pharaohs.  ("Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday.") It's a short step from that to deciding the birth of Christ (which, after all, Paul had absolutely no interest in; nor does Mark or John) is a significant event, too:

The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.] Others reached the date of 24 or 25 Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April). With Clement's evidence may be mentioned the "De paschæ computus", written in 243 and falsely ascribed to Cyprian (P.L., IV, 963 sqq.), which places Christ's birth on 28 March, because on that day the material sun was created. But Lupi has shown (Zaccaria, Dissertazioni ecc. del p. A.M. Lupi, Faenza, 1785, p. 219) that there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ's birth. Clement, however, also tells us that the Basilidians celebrated the Epiphany, and with it, probably, the Nativity, on 15 or 11 Tybi (10 or 6 January). At any rate this double commemoration became popular, partly because the apparition to the shepherds was considered as one manifestation of Christ's glory, and was added to the greater manifestations celebrated on 6 January; partly because at the baptism-manifestation many codices (e.g. Codex Bezæ) wrongly give the Divine words as sou ei ho houios mou ho agapetos, ego semeron gegenneka se (Thou art my beloved Son, this day have I begotten thee) in lieu of en soi eudokesa (in thee I am well pleased), read in Luke 3:22. Abraham Ecchelensis (Labbe, II, 402) quotes the Constitutions of the Alexandrian Church for a dies Nativitatis et Epiphaniæ in Nicæan times; Epiphanius (Hær., li, ed. Dindorf, 1860, II, 483) quotes an extraordinary semi-Gnostic ceremony at Alexandria in which, on the night of 5-6 January, a cross-stamped Korê was carried in procession round a crypt, to the chant, "Today at this hour Korê gave birth to the Eternal"; John Cassian records in his "Collations" (X, 2 in P.L., XLIX, 820), written 418-427, that the Egyptian monasteries still observe the "ancient custom"; but on 29 Choiak (25 December) and 1 January, 433, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril of Alexandria, and his sermons (see Mansi, IV, 293; appendix to Act. Conc. Eph.) show that the December celebration was then firmly established there, and calendars prove its permanence. The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433.

So, again, the picture is complicated.  The celebration began in Egypt, even though Origen still thought such observations the province of sinners, not saints.  And the celebration moved all over the calendar finally, by the 5th century, settling on December 25 throughout the Church.  Need I remind you that Saturnalia, a Roman (as in city of) holiday, was still on the ecclesiastical calendar as late as 448, but had no significance at all by then except as a "Feast for slaves"?  And it was observed on December 17, and had been by then for several centuries.  And the earliest evidence for the December 25th date in Rome is a calendar from 354.  Saturnalia had been observed on December 17 for a long time by that year.  And it wasn't replaced by Christmas; indeed, they continued side by side for almost 100 years, on the church's own calendar!  Can we stop this "Saturnalia" nonsense now?

Ironically, later in her article Tarico quotes Increase Mather on this subject:

“The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”

Ironic because Mather and his fellow Puritans are responsible for this spurious connection between December 25 and Saturnalia.  Mather offers no evidence for that claim, either, except as an appeal to the prejudices of his audience, a context Tarico also unwittingly provides:

“If it had been the will of God that the several acts of Christ should have been celebrated with several solemnities, the Holy Ghost would have made known to us the day of his nativity, circumcision, presentation in the temple, baptism, transfiguration, and the like.” . . . . “This opinion of Christ’s nativity on the 25th day of December was bred at Rome.”

You don't need a secret decoder ring to catch the contempt dripping from that phrase:  "bred at Rome." The Reformed movement (of which Tarico's evangelical church is a descendant) practiced a particularly scathing contempt for Rome which has not much ebbed in 500+ years.  Almost everything she says in this article is a product of that heritage though she thinks herself well beyond it and a "reasonable" person.  Reason, however, is always grounded somewhere, and is a demanding taskmaster if you would use it to discover truth.

Tarico doesn't go much beyond the Puritans and their contempt for Christmas.  Christmas in America started this way:

It fell to Puritan reformers to put a stop to the unholy merriment [of the English Christmas celebration, which had little to do with giving gifts and much to do with getting drunk] and to bend arguments over the proper keeping of Christmas into an older and more basic one--whether there should even be an observance of the day. Defying the decisions of the Anglican Convocation of 1562 to maintain the church calendar, the Puritans struck Christmas, along with all saint's days [no Hallowe'en!], from their own list of holy days. The Bible, they held, expressly commanded keeping only the Sabbath. That would be their practice as well.
Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America,  Oxford 1995, p. 7.

With words like this, the kind Tarico might well have heard thundered from the pulpit of the church of her childhood:

"Into what stupendous height of more than pagan impiety...have we not now degenerated! [Christmas out to be] rather a day of mourning than rejoicing, [not a time spent in] amorous mixt, voluptuous, unchristian, that I say not pagan, dancing, to God's, to Christ's dishonour, religion's scandal, charities' shipwracke and sinne's advantage."

That's from William Prynne's Histriomastrix (1633), quoted in Restad,  p. 7.

The contempt for it sprang from two sources:  the unruly behavior connected with the celebration of the season; and the deep connection to Rome, because "Christmas" itself derived from the "Christ Mass," a term far too Roman for Puritans to find acceptable.  We can take up the words of Increase Mather again, to drive the point home:

In the Apostolical times the Feast of the Nativity was not observed....It can never be proved t that Christ was born on December 25....The New Testament allows of no stated Holy-Day but the Lords-day...It was in compliance with the Pagan saturnalia that Christmas Holy-dayes were first invented. The manner of Christmas-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonorable to the name of Christ." (Restad, p. 14)
The Puritans wanted to return to a worship in keeping with what they thought "Apostolic times" were, even though that would have included far more Jewish practices than they would have been comfortable with, and a regular celebration of the eucharist (it's to the Reformed movement that we owe a celebration of "communion" only four times a year).  In fact, Christmas wasn't widely observed in 19th century America:

Christmas day is no religious day and hardly a holiday with them: New-year's day is perhaps a little, but only a little more so. For Twelfth-day, it is unknown; and the household private festivals of birthdays are almost universally passed by unsevered from the rest of the toilsome days devoted to the curse of labor."  Restad, p. 17.
 That's an English actress touring America in 1832 (what there was of it).  I especially like that "curse of labor" line, since the European celebrations of the season were meant to be a relief from that curse.  But good Puritans that we Americans are, we still take our holiday all on one day and one day only, and work like dogs to get to it, and work almost as much to get over it.

Christmas didn't officially become a holiday in America until 1870, but almost 150 years later we still like to think ourselves superior to those who passed the holiday on to us, and sneer at the "pagan" roots we imagine it has, as if we are not pagan ourselves.  The line between "pagans" and "us" is one the Puritans drew, and we re-draw it every time we imagine we know a secret truth hidden from the benighted who enjoy Christmas on whatever terms they like.

My preference is still to say:  "May it be unto you according to your faith."  But please, don't speak nonsense.  Better to be silent, and all that.

*This is what Tarico is told by by Tony Nugent, which she blithely ignores in order to force modern sensibilities on a millennia old story:

Or consider the idea that Mary is a virgin. The Greek writer of Matthew quotes Isaiah as saying: “a parthenos shall conceive and bear a child.” The Hebrew word in Isaiah is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” But the Greek word parthenos can mean either a virgin or a young woman, and it got translated as “virgin.” Modern Bible translations have corrected this, but it is a central part of the Christmas story.
Yes, there is an idea of Mary ever virginal in the Roman Catholic teachings; but Tarico betrays her Puritanical roots on this subject.  The virginity of Mary is certainly overstated in the Christmas story.  Modern scholarship doesn't exactly ruin the tale by emphasizing Mary's youth rather than her physical state.  The emphasis on "cult" doesn't make Tarico entirely unreasonable; but it doesn't make her coldly rational, either.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I love your posts on this subject, I always learn so much from them. You hit the nail on the head re Tarico's anti-papist heritage. The contemporary atheist invective just adopted the old Brit anti-Catholic invective, generalizing it to all things "Xian" it's an irony that the magical folk, also on the CSICOP Index Of Prohibited Thought, has also adopted it.

I've been meaning to look into the thing I read earlier this year that the Mathers, Increase and son, Cotton, were widely disliked an despised even in the Massachussetts Bay Colony, something about Increase being booted off the Harvard board of trustees, or whatever they were back then. Maybe it was Cotton being rejected by them. As I recall the Salem trials did nothing to make them more popular. As you note, history is complex and the comic book version of it which all this atheist BS is based in, is a fabric of worn out lies. Tarico is a professional pusher of such stuff. It must be easier for her to write her regurgitated bilge like a hack writer for those womens' magazines that have a diet of the month next to a picture of a big grotesquely fattening cake every month. They're selling the same kind of double-speak.

10:40 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

These stories are always "deja vu all over again."

But this year they at least have a little more relevance. It was rather funny reading all the anguish and gnashing of teeth over this year's Amazon Synod, in which so many (unofficial) guardians of orthodoxy decried rampant paganism, while I just thought, "Ha ha! We captured some more!"

1:25 PM  

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