Late on this Christmas day, I offer a Pic of the Day taken nearly 13 years ago. It is in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a 5th century basilica (over a 4th century basilica) built over the grotto identified by ancient Christians and revered today, as the birthplace of Jesus.
The basilica is located in a place of extreme political tension and itself is often overcrowded, loud, dirty, and foggy with the smoke from religious ritual. The pic shows my daughters in the main nave of the church. It remains for me a reminder to keep the right things in focus.
Continuing and concluding my series on the Winter Solstice, we now turn to the question of its relation to the date for Christmas.
The moment of the Winter Solstice generally occurs on 20-21 December in our current Gregorian Calendar. With Christmas set at 25 December, the relation between the two would appear merely coincidental. But there is a bit of history and controversy about the matter, obliquely referenced by the 23 December (Festivus!) 2018 “Doonesbury” comic. This brief look cannot explore the full and complicated story; so, for the nerds I have supplied endnotes with clues to further information.
The date of Jesus’ birth is not given by the Bible and
cannot be known with any certainty. Many commentators have noted that late
December is quite unlikely, given details in the gospels’ nativity accounts—but
I will not go into that here. The earliest Christian writers give various speculative
dates for the event, but none on 25 December.
The second-century church father Origen even decried birthday celebrations in
general as a pagan practice (Origen, Homilies
on Leviticus 8)!
It was in the AD 330s that 25 December was first promoted as
a feast day to celebrate Christ’s birth, but only in Rome. By the 380s the date
as accepted in Asia Minor, and by the 540s in Egypt. Other churches, especially
in the East, continued to observe 6 January, Epiphany, as the Nativity (even to
But why focus on 25 December and why did that date generally
prevail? Conventional scholarly treatments argue that the choice was dictated
by pagan practice, initiated by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. In that year,
the argument goes, Aurelian decreed 25 December as the birthday and festival of
Sol Invictus, “the unconquerable Sun,”
and dedicated a new temple to the god with monotheistic overtones. What does
all this have to do with the Winter Solstice? In the Julian calendar in use at
the time, the solstice fell on 25 December. Christians then, it is argued, either:
1) began to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25 December under the cover of the
pagan solstice holiday to avoid persecution; or 2) later declared Sol’s birthday
to be that of Christ in order to usurp it and suppress pagan practice. The
argument makes sense but is not as solid as usually assumed.
No text, for example, explicitly says Aurelian named 25 December as the nativity of Sol. Evidence that the date was in honor of Sol Invictus is extracted from the Chronography of 354, an illustrated calendar codex prepared for a wealthy Christian in that year. The original is now lost, but several manuscript copies have survived. In the calendar section, the day equivalent to 25 December indicates the birthday of Invictus (but without “Sol”) and that games (30 chariot races) were ordered/decreed. Elsewhere in the document, under a Chronicle of Rome, the entry for Aurelian includes (without dates), “He dedicated the Temple of Sol,” and “instituted the games of Sol.”
The assumption that Aurelian established a major cult festival for Sol Invictus on 25 December is based on combining the different references with the Christian date in mind. While the connection is possible, perhaps probable, it is far from proven. Indeed, scholarly arguments construct a “Christian versus pagan” atmosphere that may not have existed at all. The posited cultural struggle continues to play out today, as seen in several websites dedicated to “proving” that Jesus was really born on 25 December—one way to defeat the pagans.
I see a continuation of the manufactured conflict in contemporary debate about correct salutations of this time of year—thus the relevance of the “Doonesbury” cartoon cited above. The divisiveness present in American politics these days encourages me (rightly) to avoid dogmatic political statements. But for holiday greetings, I am at a loss. I tend to use “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings” interchangeably without thought, as I did in the 1960s and 70s. But even that has become (in my opinion) unnecessarily burdened. I resent that if I say “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” I am liable to the charge of paganism, or if I say “Merry Christmas,” I am accused of some attempt to impose my beliefs on others. <Sigh>.
Debates like this generally go nowhere when ideology directs
argument, especially in religious matters. For the Winter Solstice and Christmas
question, I suggest a practical, “real-life” examination. In popular religion—as
distinct from “official” tenets and practice—much borrowing of ideas and
imagery occur. Such borrowing does not imply doctrinal syncretism or usurpage
as much as cultural trends or symbols of comfort. The depiction of angels in
Christian art as winged children, for example, does not mean that the artists
or admirers of the work were secret pagans with a thing for Eros!
Sol Invictus, the Greek Helios, is depicted in a fiery chariot with rays emanating from his head. Oddly, his image appears at the center of zodiac scenes on mosaic floors of several Jewish synagogues in Israel. Did the aniconic Jews suddenly become pagan idolaters? Certainly not. So, what’s with those mosaics in so many different synagogues? Maybe . . . they just liked it that way. Popular culture trends are often counter-intuitive and hard to explain. One view holds that the Helios/Sol image simply represents the sun as a symbol of order and not a deity;  much like smiling sun faces on grandfather clocks.
Perhaps the most interesting
Helios/Sol image is found in a tomb in the necropolis under St. Peter’s
Basilica in the Vatican. Mausoleum M contains an image, clearly of Helios/Sol,
interpreted as representing Christ. Other details of the tomb are interpreted as
Christian by Vatican scholars, obviously motivated to find Christianity in the
necropolis containing the apparent tomb of St. Peter. They understand, however,
that a Christian tomb depicting Christ in the manner of Sol Invictus does not threaten
their theology nor invalidate the tomb owner’s faith.
So, could early Christians have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ—an actual date unknown to them—at the season when the gloom of winter begins to reverse and the sun’s warmth begins to make a comeback? I think they could; whether or not a Roman Emperor decided to mark the birth of Sol in the same season. I also hope they could use the situation to explain their own views in an inviting way, taking advantage of the halcyon days a holiday can bring.
And, I have decided that I can
hear (or say!) “Seasons Greetings” and know why the season itself is special. And if I hear or say “Merry Christmas,” I
will also think of why Jesus’ birth is celebrated in this season.
Thanks for looking!
*If you get this reference, you are either pretty old or pretty cool (or both).
 I have read “Doonesbury” daily since my matriculation at Georgia Tech in September 1974, where the then-weekly student newspaper, Technique, published the week’s strips. I should add, in the spirit of this post, that I do not read “Doonesbury” out of a dedication to its evident political bias, but for its exploration of various elements of our popular culture. My other daily reads are: “Dilbert,” “Pearls Before Swine,” and “Calvin and Hobbs” (now in perpetual rerun).
by the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1.21. For a fuller discussion, see Steven Hijmans, “Sol
Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion (Series III) 3 (2003): 377, n.
2-3; this is an excellent article (full
version here) for a deeper view of things discussed here.
Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” 378ff
(and be sure to read the footnotes).
So today (still, barely, as I write this), 21 December 2018, is the Winter Solstice, making it first day of winter; and tomorrow is a full moon. Though we refer to them in terms of full days, both the solstice and full moons are momentary events: when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky and when the moon is 180° from (opposite of) the sun, respectively. Those moments occur this year within a 24-hour period. Thus they effectively coincide, as we cannot discern the difference visually. For example, the moon appears “full” tonight, but will not technically be so until tomorrow (December 22) at 11:49 CST (17:49 UTC). And, the sun’s rays penetrate to the burial chambers of the tombs described in my previous post (here) not only on the solstices, but on the few surrounding days as well.
While researching how accurately the ancients could discern these phenomena, I stumbled upon an interesting (to me, anyway) bit of cultural information. It turns out that “halcyon days,” a term now used for a period of calm or peace (frequently nostalgically), originally referred to the few days surrounding the Winter Solstice. For this, we turn to Classical mythology.
A relatively little-known myth referenced by several ancient writers holds that Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus (guardian of the winds), married Ceyx, son of the morning star (Lucifer!), and together they ruled the city of Trachis in Thessaly. Some sources report that they lovingly referred to each other as Hera and Zeus, which offended the real gods. Ceyx embarked on a journey to consult the oracle at Claros, across the Aegean, and the offended gods allowed a thunderstorm to capsize the ship, drowning Ceyx.
In her sorrow, Alcyone hurled herself off a breakwater to certain death, but was transformed by some merciful unnamed deity into a Kingfisher; halcyon in Latin, from the Greek αλκυών. With dead Ceyx also thus transformed, the pair nested and Alcyone laid eggs which were sheltered from winter winds by Aeolus for seven days (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 410-748) preceding and after the Winter Solstice (Plutarch, Moralia. Whether Land or Sea Animals Are Cleverer 35). These calm days were called “halcyon days” by ancient sailors (Hyginus, Fabula 65), who greatly revered Alcyone on account of their safe passage at that time.
My own experience of getting out an about in the days around the Winter Solstice have not evoked the phrase “halcyon days” —especially today, as I navigated among hordes of crazed shoppers to and through various local businesses. It seems we have created the very opposite of halcyon days in this season. And as Winter Solstice 2018 heralds the heaviest travel day for Christmas 2018, air, land, and sea-farers in the eastern U.S. are facing treacherous weather. May we fare better than Ceyx and find mercy from a known God.
My comparison of Christmas Chaos to the Halcyon Days of yore brings up the question of the relation of yuletide to the Winter Solstice. Is there a connection? Could be . . .
Today (21 December 2018) the Winter Solstice will occur at 16:23 (4:23pm) CST (22:23 UTC). It is the moment at which the Sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, its most southerly point in Earth’s sky for the year. The Winter Solstice marks the official beginning of winter and is the origin of much tradition and practice in human culture—perhaps to include when we celebrate Christmas (we’ll get to that in a subsequent post). There are plenty of sites that explain the solstices; earthsky.org has perhaps the coolest visual representation here. As usual, Ancient Dan focuses on the ancient and weird connections; and a three-part series is anticipated.
Our modern lives are too indoor, too climate-controlled, and too well-lit for a constant awareness of celestial phenomena. The ancients, however, were keenly aware of such things. Hence our calendar months; though adjusted for the solar year, they have origin in the ever-visible cycles of the moon. The struggle to reconcile lunar cycles with the solar year dominate the history of the calendar and its religious ties. Which heavenly body should dictate human ritual? The moon has a rhythmic influence but the sun rules the sky as the “greater light” (Gen 1: 16).* More importantly, for our purposes, the sun clearly determines the seasons.
The influence of the sun on daylight time and seasons is more pronounced at higher latitudes (meaning more northerly for the Near East and Classical worlds). So, it is not surprising that alignments to solar phenomena are more obvious in megalithic monuments in northern Europe. Stonehenge is the most famous example, but there are others.
The most interesting are tombs, such as Newgrange in Ireland (see a good overview site here). Newgrange is a Neolithic “passage tomb,” in which a narrow passageway of megalithic stones leads to a built chamber under a tumulus mound of stones or earth. At Newgrange, the sun penetrates into the tomb chamber at sunrise on a few mornings immediately around the Winter Solstice. This phenomenon is facilitated by a “roof box” opening above the entrance that permits light to stream directly down the 60 ft. passageway.
Sadly, photos are impossible in the chamber at Newgrange (crowds and rules). Happily, there is another site that is more remote and less controlled with similar features.
A number of passage tombs on isolated hills can be seen at Carrowkeel, in County Sligo. These are considerably smaller than Newgrange, but with better ambiance than the crowded tourist site. One of them, Cairn G, has a roof-box, as seen in the previous pic. The passage is short (in length and height!) and can be entered by those able to negotiate the large entrance stone. The size makes it difficult to photograph, but I offer the following views:
From an engineering point of view, it is tempting to ascribe a stress-relieving function to the roof-box (i.e., to take pressure off the entrance lintel). But, roof-boxes are not a consistent design feature of passage tombs. For example, the adjacent Cairns at Carrowkeel (Cairn H, pic below, and K) have no roof-boxes, despite an apparently greater mass of tumulus stones above the entrance.
As at Newgrange, the alignment of the rare roof-box at Carrowkeel Cairn G seems significant. The sun shines directly through it to the back of the tomb chamber at sunsets on days surrounding the Summer Solstice. As there are no written sources in the Neolithic period (these things date to about 3200 BC), scholars must extrapolate the intended significance. It usually goes something like this: the sun was seen as in decline or even dying during its annual reduced time overhead and recession to the south; the Winter Solstice marked the end of the sun’s decline and beginning of its growth; the Summer Solstice, then, marked the beginning of the sun’s decline; and this cycle was celebrated in solar worship and as a form of hope for the deceased.
While I don’t want to recommend Pagan religion, it is interesting to speculate that they may have found some comfort and hope in a generally depressing part of the year. Maybe that aspect is part of why we celebrate Christmas when we do (but, again, more about that later). Certainly Christmas is a promise of redemption in a tough season.
Meanwhile, back to Newgrange. The interpretation usually assumed (as above) holds that the Newgrange tomb is oriented to mark the end of a downturn (death of those buried within?) and the hope of increasing light, warmth, and life with the sun’s reversal. Perhaps ironically, our visit there was 10 days after life as I knew it suffered a sudden and unexpected “death.” But it was at Newgrange that my wife and I met new friends that continue to bring joy to our life as we now know it.
“Santa is dead; I have been to all three of his tombs!” That tongue-in-cheek potential presentation title is the idea of beloved former student, now-former colleague, and fine scholar, J Mark Nicovich. The conundrum of three tombs (plus many other claimed relics) arises from the traditions that St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey), was buried in that city but his remains were stolen on two different occasions and taken (ahem, . . . “translated”) to Bari in southern Italy in 1087 and Venice, in northern Italy in 1101. Thus, there are Churches of St. Nicholas in all three locations, each claiming to enshrine the resting place for the inspiration and namesake of Santa Claus. See Part 1 of this Trilogy on “St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place?” here (and Part 2 here).
So, which church/city possesses the real relics of St. Nicholas? As it happens, recent months have seen some significant developments in this question.
In early October of 2017 Cemil Karabayram, Director of Surveying and Monuments for the region in which Myra/Demre is located (Antalya), claimed in an interview that CT and radar scans had revealed an intact “temple” beneath the St. Nicholas Church. The exact location is not revealed by the article, but he indicated that the find is currently inaccessible “because experts have to first work on the mosaics.”1
Karabayram speculated, “maybe we will find the untouched body of St. Nicholas.” How can this be, given the two accounts of the “translation” of the Saint’s relics to Bari and Venice? “Traders in Bari took the bones. But it is said that these bones did not belong to St. Nicholas but to another priest,” he said, adding. “Professor Yıldız Ötüken . . . says that St Nicholas is kept in a special section.” “We claim that St. Nicholas has been kept in this temple without any damage. . . . If we get the results, Antalya’s tourism will gain big momentum.”2
The claim that Nicholas’ body has remained in Myra/Demre is significant; and the note that tourism would be boosted if it is found is telling. Are city status and tourist revenues a motivation? Bari and Venice surely took note . . .
On 6 December (significantly, the date of St. Nicholas’ death and Feast Day), articles announced that relics of St. Nicholas subjected to Carbon 14 analysis by the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre dated to the fourth century; i.e., consistent with the AD 343 death of the historical bishop. Careful sifting of the published info reveals that the single bone tested is owned by an American priest in Morton Grove Illinois, who says he obtained the relic from Lyon in France.3 By inference, the Oxford University news release suggests that the bones in Bari and Venice therefore could date to the fourth century as well. There is no solid connection between the American relic and those in the Italian churches. But the Bari relics of St. Nicholas are missing part of the pelvis, of which the tested bone apparently comes.
During restorations at Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola in the early 1950s, the tomb of St. Nicholas was opened for the first time since it was sealed by Pope Urban II in 1089. The bones were examined by Luigi Martino, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bari, who found the skeleton was incomplete. A complete skull, however, allowed reconstruction of the ancient face—that of Nicholas, if the bones are authentic.4 In 1992, Martino was asked to examine the relics in Venice. The latter were all broken into smaller pieces, but he concluded that the Venice fragments were complementary to the bones in Bari and they are from the skeleton of the same man. A narrative that the Bari sailors in 1087 hurriedly absconded with the skeleton and left pieces behind to be found in 1099 by the Venetian raiders is thus possible.5 So, in a spirit of ecumenical peace, the Bari and Venice claims can coexist and they can share the reconstructed image of the Saint adored in both places. The logical—but unlikely—next step is to use DNA analysis to connect the bones of Bari and Venice, and either radiocarbon date them or include the Illinois fragment in the DNA analysis. This, however, would spoil the remaining mystery.
Meanwhile, back at Demre/Myra, we await further archaeological explorations in the Church of St. Nicholas. As for the image of St. Nicholas there, there is already some controversy, as the city has displayed four different images of the Saint in the last 35 years.6 From 1981 to 2000, the only public image was a statue of a Father Christmas-like figure with a bag over his shoulder and children huddled around him, as if seeking protection. It still stands in the courtyard in front of St. Nicholas Church. In my mind, this is the most appropriate one, given the controversy that followed (it might be noted that moving/replacing statues is not a new thing):
In 2000, a Russian sculptor and the mayor of Moscow presented Demre with a bronze statue of St. Nicholas in Orthodox style, which was placed atop a large globe on a pedestal in the town square, a block or so in front of the church.
In 2005, however, the Orthodox Christian St. Nicholas was replaced by the town council with a red-suited Santa Claus statue made of Bakelite (as I never saw the Santa statue in place, you can view a pic here). Demre’s mayor, explained “this is the one everyone knows;” plus, it was also less offensive to the city’s Muslim population.7 Nevertheless, complains were made, primarily by Russian interests, as St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia. Finally (for now), and perhaps in response to protests, a compromised was reached on Christmas Day 2008, when the current statue atop the pedestal was unveiled:
It is a fiberglass “Turkish Santa” with a heroic stance and victorious mien, holding a small child on his shoulder and another by the hand, each raising a wrapped gift. Controversy aside; I like it.
Actually, I like them all. The changing images (and names) of St. Nicholas are a commentary on social roles of hero figures, cultural appropriation, tribalism . . . and really on human nature. Most Americans of recent generations experienced an evolution (or revolution) in their own concepts of Santa Claus while maturing, not so unlike the changes of statues in Demre. And as for the question of the travels (or not) of Nicholas’ bones; I am taken back to the catalyst for this series of posts: the NORAD tracking of Santa on Christmas Eve, mentioned in Part 1. While the notion that government technology could track his sleigh is exciting, and the website is visually impressive (and educational), I cant help feeling that it robs something from that childhood wonder at the mysterious how and unknown when of Santa’s anticipated arrival. Then I realized the technology and presentation didn’t really answer anything—there is always more mystery and wonder. So, that is why I rather suspect (and perhaps secretly hope) that the true fate of Nicholas’ remains will remain similarly unknown. Life is just more interesting that way.