an ancient Christmas
To mark the festive season, I thought I might put together a collection of resources that outline the seasonal celebrations that preceded Christmas but became part of the (Northern Hemisphere) Christmas tradition.
Saturnalia - a Roman festival for the god Saturn that involved much merrymaking, role swapping and generosity. A December agricultural festival, it marked the end of winter and the return to the good times of the harvest. There is a comprehensive article about Saturnalia here.
Christmas Carols - while there is extensive research and knowledge about the origins of carols such as Silent Night and Good King Wenceslas, what do we know of the earliest carols sung by the Early Christians of the Mediterranean? Interestingly, early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ - as Christmas - until the end of the 4thC BCE. From then though, it was a rich source of inspiration for carol writers. This is a fabulous article written by Ágnes T. Mihálykó from the University of Oslo, detailing the early carols by Christians living in Egypt.
25 December - This date falls in the Northern Hemisphere mid winter - a time of great celebration amongst pagan tribes for millenia. All would rejoice at the inevitable return of the sun after defeating the darkness of winter. Zoroastrians were keen celebrants of the sun , particularly at mid winter. Those adherents living in Rome during the height of the empire would worship Mithras in lavish temples. As Christianity took hold and the church looked to consolidate its power and theology, rather than demonise pagan celebrations it absorbed them into the Christian calendar. This is one of the reasons why Christmas is celebrated in winter. There is a great BBC site that shows the other factors considered by the church, including efforts to historically date the birth of Jesus.
yule log - I have seen these delicious sweets in bakeries in Australia and while I rarely see them on the table here, they seem to be pretty popular in the northern hemisphere. So what is the go with eating a tree trunk? The history of this tradition was a bit difficult to pin down as there are many references to Germanic, Druidic and Norse rituals all associated with mid-winter celebrations. I have attached the Wikipedia site here as it makes reference to some of the source material regarding yule logs.
So, from the Southern Hemisphere perspective, we embrace our mid-summer, bath in the heat and the waters of the Great Southern Land. We tend to eat fresh cold foods but there are certainly elements of the northern (and pagan!) tradition on the Christmas table. If you are interested in celebratory traditions of the indigenous Australia, then you might like to check out these resources:
Go forth and conquer.
(cover image by Antoine Callet)