The Sciences

The reasons for the seasons

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 24, 2011 5:27 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

John Farrell points me to this interesting post, Whose Christmas Is It Anyway?, which reports on revisionist scholarship which expresses skepticism that the Roman Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a co-option of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the celebration of the birth of Sol. The context is that in the 3rd century various forms of astral religion, often of eastern provenance, became rather prominent across the Roman Empire. These cults received ad hoc imperial patronage due to the devotion of particular emperors, such as Aurelian. Though the cult of Sol never attained a religious monopoly analogous to Christianity, the rise of the latter in the 4th century is best understood with the prominence of the former in the 3rd century kept in mind. So, for example, the peculiarity of early depictions of Jesus Christ to the modern eye may simply be a function of the cultural milieu in terms of the expectations of what a god would look like. The transfer of rituals from the solar religion of the 3rd and 4th century down to Christian late antiquity is noted for the Roman aristocracy, mostly because the clerical elite of the period inveighed against these persistence pagan forms of reverence of the divine. With this kept in mind it makes absolute sense to suggest that many cultural phenomena which have been thoroughly Christianized may have had a pre-Christian origin in the solar cults of late antiquity. But plausibility does not necessarily mean that that is the real matter of affairs. Unfortunately the origins of Christmas are so politicized that it is difficult to get objective sources. The conflicts are actually in origin intra-Christian. Radial "low church" Protestants made a case for the pagan origins of Christmas before secular scholarship became the authoritative sources. In the English-speaking world the first "War Against Christmas" occurred during the conflicts between Puritans and Cavaliers, with Christmas being a relic of "Popery." The "high church" Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Christians naturally reject this supposition by Protestant revisionists, and make a proactive case for the Christian origins of the holiday. So it is into this recent historical-cultural conflict that secular scholars step. In fact, I have found that there are repeated cases that more irreligious provocateurs implicitly or explicitly relay arguments of radical Protestants, because the latter are broadly speaking among the most atheistic of the religious (in that they have a very narrow view of proper theism, and are vociferous in expressing skepticism and disbelief of elements of religious practice outside the ken of their circle of respectability). But to get a more substantive understanding of the origins of Christmas, and the reason for its persistence and flourishing, we need to take a more cross-cultural and anthropological perspective. When viewed in this light I think the pagan or Christian origin of the festival becomes less relevant. The reality is that early Christianity and late Greco-Roman paganism were simmered in the same cultural stew. For those who believe that Christianity or paganism express exclusive and real facts about the universe their differences are stark and make them distinct, but for those of us who accede to the proposition that religious phenomena in a deep sense is a product of human cognition, rather than a commentary on eternal metaphysical truths, these differences are less important. Because modern Western civilization is the heir to Christendom we focus often on the pagan or Jewish roots of Christianity, as if the religion is a linear combination of these two, without keeping in mind that Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism evolved organically along with Christianity between 100 and 600. The reality of this influence is obvious in Judaism, which is really just one stream of Jewish religion which comes down to us from late antiquity. Comparisons between classical and pre-classical Judaism and "Orthodox Judaism" show that the latter is clearly a derivation of a particular Jewish school of thought from late antiquity. That is, it is a subset of the range of practice and belief which characterized Jewishness across the five centuries before and after Christ (this position has been elaborated by Reform Jewish rabbis who suggest their own religious tradition is in some ways a faithful reconstruction of older streams which went extinct in late antiquity). But just as 18th century Judaism can not be understood outside of the context of Christianity in the 5th and 6th centuries, and Chrisitanity in the 1st to 6th centuries can not be understood outside of the context of Judaism and paganism of that period, paganism from the 1st to 6th centuries can not be understood outside of the context of Judaism and Christianity. More accurately, there was a broad distribution of religious practices and forms which borrowed from and influenced each other, and what we see in the early modern period in Christianity and Judaism is a distillation of specific elements of that milieu, elaborated and evolved. The extinction of an explicit tradition of high paganism makes us less conscious of this reality, though the Christian flavor of aspects of late antique paganism and the mimicry of evident in late Norse and Baltic paganism is attested by some textual sources.

What does all this have to do with Christmas? I believe that in the European context Christmas is very close to being particular instance of a general element of the evoked cultural toolkit. In other words, given the exogenous non-cultural preconditions a midwinter festival in Europe is almost inevitable! Only the details will differ. Why? Europe is the northermost region in the world of expansive agricultural civilization. Southern England is at the same latitude as central Canada or southern Siberia. Central Spain is at the same latitude as Chicago or northern Korea. For obvious reasons calenders are essential to agricultural populations, and the length of days measured by the arc of the sun is one of the major pegs one can utilize for this. And even before agriculture the sun was likely a source of spiritual wonder and awe. Solar divinities are found in most societies. They aren't a novel and exceptional innovation; worship of the sun is a human tendency. In Europe you have an agricultural civilization which is marked by extreme deprivation of sun in the depths of winter due to its northerly position, so the turning of the year at the winter solstice would be of particular importance in that specific instance. So let's do a counter-factual. What if Julian the Apostate had survived and flourished for decades? Some have hypothesized that the situation might have been analogous to what happened to Buddhism in China after the Tang dynasty. The religion was still prominent, but it no longer monopolized the commanding heights of high society, and spiritual pluralism remained operative because of the lack of state enforced monopoly or enforcement of exclusion of other cults. Let's take this for granted. I believe that a midwinter festival with many of the outlines of Christmas would be prominent today in this situation. Whether the Christian population partook of this celebration would be partly contingent upon their numbers. If they were a very small sect, they might take the stance of Jehovah's Witnesses and reject it as pagan. On the other hand if Christianity was a substantial religious cult then I suspect it would have its own spin on the midwinter festival, excising those elements objectionable. In other words, the situation would differ only on the margins from what is arguable the case today! Addendum: It goes without saying that the various midwinter festivals exhibit historically and culturally contingent accretions. If we were to "rewind" history these accretions would differ. But the general holiday would persist and flourish, as it has in our own timeline.

Image credit: Wikipedia

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Magazine Examples
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.