Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Disconcerting Dating of the Christmas Celebrations

               There are puritans (with a small ‘P’) who will tell you that ‘Xmas’ is all wrong and you shouldn’t use it. Puritans aren’t always right. Xmas has a very long and distinguished history. From the earliest times, the first letter of Χριςτος – the Greek form of Christos, has been used as an abbreviation for Christ, with Χmas as an alternative to Christmas. An Old English chronicle, dated 1021, containes the words, “On Xpes mæsse uhtan” (‘On Christ’s mass dawning’) and John Wyclif, in a sermon for New Year’s Day dating from about 1380, says of the mystical word VIX, 
For in þis word VIX ben but þree lettris, V, and I, and X. And V bitokeneþ fyve; I bitokeneþ Jesus; and X bitokeneþ Crist. (i.e. X betokens Christ)” 

The Chi-Rho

The use of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ were used in the Chi-Rho symbol, which stood as a secret sign for the early Christians and conveniently looked a little like a cross too. In fact, the name of the festival was Dies Natalis Domini (The day of the birth of the Lord) or, more fully, Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (The feast of the day of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ), because the early Catholic Church used Latin as their official language and it wasn’t until the tenth or eleventh century that the English began to use Christ’s Mass, which was conflated into such words as Christenmass, kryst-masse, cristmasse, crystmasse, Chrysmas, and Cristmas, and it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that this was standardised as Christmas, so, if anything, Xmas is more ‘authentic’ than Christmas

Another Chi-Rho

These early Christians did not really celebrate Christmas but in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, which date from 375 to 380 CE, Book V Section III, On Feast Days and Fast Days, has, 
Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month; after which let the Epiphany be to you the most honoured, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own Godhead, and let it take place on the sixth of the tenth month.” 
From this, we see that the ‘most honoured’ feast day was that of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, and there were advocates for dates other than December 25th, with various dates put forward for various reasons, but after St Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) the Eastern and Western churches recognised December 25th as the Feast of the Nativity (although the Armenian Church still uses January 6th, with those members of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the Holy Land that still use the Julian calendar opting for January 19th). 

Figuring things out

Using a slightly more convoluted logic, some commentators reasoned that since God started creating everything by dividing the light and the dark, it made sense that he must have done this on the Spring equinox, when the day and the night are of equal length. Furthermore, it also made sense that since his son was the Light of the World, he would also have been conceived at the Spring equinox, and the Feast of the Annunciation was March 25th so it made sense that he would have been born nine months later, on December 25th. Obvious, when you think it through. 

The Nativity

If the date is uncertain, then so too is the year; once again, there are any number of theories, with Dionysus Exiguus settling on the Anno Domini mode of reckoning in his Cyclus Paschalis, a treatise for computing the correct date for Easter, which placed the year of the birth of Christ, (1 AD) in the Year of Rome 753 (Anno Urbis Conditae). Due to an oversight, Dionysus got his sums wrong and was out by approximately 4 years, so that the real date of the Nativity would be at some time between 6 and 4 BCE. It made sense for the early Christians to place their celebration at around the same time as the Roman feasts of Saturnalia and the Kalends (their New Year), and the related festival celebrating the birth of the god, Mithras. 

Bas-relief of Mithras found at York

Roman soldiers stationed in Persia during the first century encountered a minor sun god called Mithra or Mitra and they took the new religion first back to Rome and then they spread it throughout the Roman Empire as they were stationed abroad. Mithraism was a mystery religion and only men were initiated into its secrets, so our knowledge is necessarily limited, but there are some interesting parallels with another emerging religion of the time. The priests of Mithras were the Magi, whom we have already met as the Three Kings. Mithras was born in a cave to a Virgin on December 25th and was the Light of the World, the Sun, whose day, Sunday, was the Sabbath. He performed miracles, including walking on water, and had twelve disciples, who followed him and were represented by the twelve signs of the zodiac. Mithras was killed and rose again after three days, during which time he descended into the underworld, and then ascended in Heaven, from where he will return at the end of the world. His followers celebrated with a special communal meal, where the food was Mithras’s flesh and blood, they progressed through seven sacraments during their lifetimes and he was known to them as ‘Saviour’, ‘Son of God’, ‘Redeemer’ and ‘Lamb of God’. 

Mithras slays a bull

This much we know. Classical authors refer to contemporary writings about the Mithras cult that have since been lost, and some of what we do have is from Christian polemicists, who sought to portray the ritualistic elements in an unsavoury manner. We know that the Roman Mithras differed from the Indo-European Mitra of the Rig-Veda, and although popular amongst the military, was revered by no more than about 1% of the population of the Roman Empire. Religions, cults and sects washed in and out of Rome from all corners of the Empire, from Britain, Gaul, Iberia, Africa, Egypt, Greece, Persia, India and beyond, and were mixed together, drawing and feeding on each other. It is no surprise then that there are so many common threads and parallels. It’s a fascinating subject. 

Wæs hæl. Drinc hæl.

So may your god, whoever or whatever you conceive he/she/it to be, if at all, be with you at this time of the year. Wæs hæl. Drinc hæl.

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