I actually lie a little bit when I say I don’t celebrate Christmas. I mean it’s true – technically… but…
Like many pagans, I nominally celebrate Yule, which occurs on the winter solstice – which means it’s a few days before Christmas Day, generally wobbling a day or two back and forth from year to year, but somewhere around the 21 December.
Yule is one of the eight ‘sabbats’ – a cycle of seasonal festivals that are observed by many of the witchcraft traditions, but are marked by many other strands of paganism as the overall ‘community calendar’.
And as a Roman pagan I also observe – or at least acknowledge – the important festival of Saturnalia, which takes place between 17-23 December. In antiquity, this was a full-on Roman rave-up where the whole social order just got completely overthrown for a little while: there was much drinking and gambling and general licentiousness; gifts were exchanged – specifically small and silly ones (you weren’t supposed to buy anyone anything valuable); and, most looked-forward to of all, role-reversal. For a short time, and always with a tacit understanding that it was all being tolerated for the sake of festivity, social dynamics would be swapped around, and masters would wait on their slaves. The streets rang to shouts and songs, most prominently the blessing of the season, “Io Saturnalia!”. It was, in essence, a right good bash.
But we Roman pagans get two bites of this cherry. Not only a week-long thrash up to the 23rd, but on the very day itself – 25 December – there is Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the Day of the Birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.
This festival has its origins in the later Roman state and is often said to be dedicated to the god Mithras, a solar or sun-related deity very popular particularly with the Roman military. In fact, the festival seems to have been less focused on Mithras and his cult and more simply a general solar festival. Roman religion was, if not what we’d understand as ‘tolerant’, then at least open to the adoption of new gods and the practices of their cults (to a Roman, the ‘cult’ or ‘cultus’ was not a negative term for a group of believers, but the system of practices and observances required to keep each individual god happy. It’s where we get the word ‘cultivate’, meaning to tend to something). The Romans were very good at what’s called ‘syncretism’ – recognising characteristics in ‘foreign’ gods that aligned with those of existing Roman ones, and adopting the new god as an aspect of the Roman one.
The upshot of this tendency was that Rome ended up with an awful lot of sun gods. And “Sol Invictus”, rather than being a specific god, generally served as any or all of them.
As is often the case with Roman festivals, what actually happened at Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (which is DNSI from now on because I’m lazy) is all history-misty. Most modern attempts to reconstruct Graeco-Roman religion, where they tackle DNSI at all, make inferences from other writings and references and make a sincere attempt to create a new festival. This is, in my view, entirely valid, though it’s a few degrees beyond what I feel motivated to do. For myself I simply take a few moments to acknowledge the Sun, feel its heat (if available), see its light (likewise if available, and in any event carefully: one should not screw around looking at the Sun ‘cos it will mightily hurt one’s seeing-face-balls), and generally try to appreciate the processes by which it gives life to every animate thing we see around us on Earth. (I’m deliberately not referencing the deep-sea spiky monsters, the little mini-Cthulhus that thrive around abyssal seabed geothermal vents, as the ancient world likely wouldn’t have known much about them.)
There’s some suggestion – not least from proper historians – that the date of DNSI was chosen for the date of Christmas because people already celebrated a divine birth (or rebirth) on that date. And this might account for the seasonal oddities in the Christian Nativity story, such as a census being held in midwinter. DNSI was simply a convenient date to be adapted into Christmas.
And some people get quite animated about this kind of thing. There are regular scheduled arguments at various points in the year about who stole what festival from whom – but honestly I don’t have any energy for that kind of dispute. In the end most of the festivals humans celebrate tend to be linked by the simple fact of people’s having to survive at Nature’s mercy, and every culture would have developed ways of a) keeping track of the seasons and b) letting off some steam from time to time.
For an ancient or medieval society the middle of winter is miserable and potentially lethal and if you’ve got this far into it without dying that’s probably worth a drink or two and maybe some decorations.
Did the Christians steal Christmas from earlier cultures? Is Hallowe’en a wicked pagan festival that good Christians should not tolerate?
Well, you do you, obviously. But for me, the commonalities between different cultures and their festive traditions are just that: commonalities. They’re areas of common ground, to be enjoyed by all, and if we let them, they could easily serve as places where we can put aside our animosities and rivalries and just enjoy the fact that, hey, it’s winter (or whenever) and we’re here, and in the midst of all this we can try to claim a few moments of peace.
Which all leads me to my admission. No, I don’t celebrate Christmas. That’s technically true. But it isn’t true to say that I’m not meant to be celebrating something at the same time of year – even if I’m still not prone to do very much even about that. But I mention all this here for general reference, so the next time it’s coming up to Christmas and I’m being irritatingly anti-merriment, you can at least go, “Ah-ha, though! But you do have a festival now, you lying, aggravating gremlin,” and throw a mince pie at me.
Might be worth it to you, you never know.