22 December 2007

Gathering on the Day of the Sun

It seems that the 'news' of Tony Blair's conversion has rather wiped from the headlines the spurious stories of Rowan Williams having supposedly thrown the baby Jesus out with the extrabiblical bathwater. Whether Blair's conversion should be regarded as good or bad news for England's established church, or simply met with a shrug, I really don't know.

Anyway, one thing that's caught my eye in discussions of the Archbishop's observations the other day has been some annoyance at how, on being asked whether there would really have been snow on the ground when Our Lord was born, Dr Williams replied:
Very unlikely, I think. It can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of year, but then we don’t know that it was this time of year, because again, the gospels don’t tell us what time of year it was. Christmas is the time of year it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.
Leaving aside the issue of Judean Decembers being relatively mild, with the real cold weather not hitting -- in that typically Mediterranean way -- until February, before yesterday I'd have automatically assumed that everyone knew this, that it went without saying that our dating of Christmas was purely a sanctification of a preexisting pagan feast.

In doing so, I'd have been thinking both of the old Roman festival of the Saturnalia and of the formal institution in 274 AD by the emperor Aurelian of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the celebration of the winter solstice under the guise of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, the solstice falling on 25 December under the Julian calendar. A Christianization of the latter festival would certainly have made sense, especially in connection with the notion of Jesus as the Light of the World and the longstanding Christian tradition of having the Day of the Sun as the principal day of worship.

It seems I may have been wrong, as it looks as though this belief is based on little more than assumption, with there being at least as much evidence against it as for it. For example, unless we're dealing with an interpolation, which is very possible, it seems that St Hippolytus of Rome, writing in the early Third Century -- decades before Aurelian's institution of the pagan feast -- recorded the date of Christ's birth as 25 December.

Assuming that this isn't a later interpolation, why might that date have been chosen?

Well, it might have been derived from highly questionable calculations based on a number of clues in Luke's gospel, but there seems far better reason to believe it's based on counting forward from the 25 March. It seems that Jewish tradition held that prophets had an 'integral age', whereby they died on the same date as that on which they were conceived or born, and since some early Christians placed Our Lord's death as having taken place on 25 March, it followed then that he must have been born or conceived on 25 March. They ran with conception -- as commemorated to this day with the feast of the Annunication -- and counted forward nine months to Christmas.

I'm not really sold on this, I must admit, but I haven't time to wade through all the detail of the arguments. Still, what seems absolutely clear is that we certainly shouldn't just assume that by celebrating Christmas on 25 December the early Christians were simply appropriating a pagan festival, not least because it seems that the ancient Romans attached no great significance to the winter solstice.

Unlike, it would seem, the ancient Irish, as I'll explain tomorrow.

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