The Illustrated Book of Christmas Folklore

The Illustrated Book of Christmas Folklore

The Illustrated Book of Christmas Folklore

The Illustrated Book of Christmas Folklore

Excerpt

The Roman Saturnalia were pagan midwinter celebrations. Early Church Fathers deliberately superimposed the festival of Christ's Mass on these ancient rites .

M OST of us, if we think about it at all, have a vague idea that the celebration of Christmas began on December 25, the year Zero, when a Star rose in the East and a Saviour was born. Of course, such was hardly the case. The celebration of Christmas really began "circa 320 A.D." when the Catholic fathers in Rome decided to convert the Mithraic "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" into a birthday more suited to their aims. Western Christians had long harbored a belief that the day involved, the twenty-fifth, was the date on which Mary bore her Son, but they hadn't been able to settle on the month. For over three centuries they had no agreed-upon time for the commemoration, and in many places it came during the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, when Jesus was supposed to have manifested Himself to the Magi and so to the Gentiles. What's more, the Eastern half of the Church had not gone along, preferring a "movable date" which they fixed by means of the moon and which they observed for nearly a century. Even after matters were stabilized on December 25, there was little pretense that the date was historically accurate. Its appeal lay in definitude and its ability to align Roman ritualism with "the cause."

The "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" was preceded in Rome by a seven-day tribute to the God of Agriculture, Saturn, and followed by the Kalends of January. Descriptions and reports of these festivities ring familiar to modern ears. Libanius, a fourth-century Greek, writes that:

The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend...Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor; better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow.... People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides. ...The highroads and footpaths are covered with whole processions of laden men and beasts.... It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year.... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to un-

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