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.
Over at Less Wrong there is a discussion on the Winter Solstice celebration. It being Less Wrong there’s a great deal of introspective analysis. That’s fine. When I was younger I did the “Solstice” celebration thing, though today at this age I think that if you live in the United States you should just own or disown Christmas. If you look into the history of this specific celebration it becomes clear that it isn’t so clearly specifically Christian in origin. The reality is that really just reflects the cosmopolitan materialism of the West of our day. Most people have reservations about the materialism, but there’s obviously some social and personal utility in the holiday.
In relation to another winter celebration, David Frum expresses the Jewish ambivalence toward Hanukkah, a minor holiday which had the fortune to be near Christmas on the calender. But Hanukkah is another example of “owning” something, and recreating it your own image. Frankly, I feel that in some ways Hanukkah was originally a celebration of the Al Qaeda of its day, the Maccabees. If you listen to this episode of In Our Time you can easily read between the lines and see where I’m coming from. The irony, or perhaps an expression of an iron law of history, is that the later Hasmoneans (the dynasty founded by the revolt) were themselves the sort of cosmopolitan Hellenists their ancestors disemboweled for their heresies. The Herodian scions of Hasmonean maternal heritage were prominent figures in the court of the Julio-Claudians, before the Jewish Wars and the absorption of Hellenistic Judaism into paganism and Christianity threw up a barrier between Jewishness and the gentile world in 2nd century.
In any case, best wishes and happy holidays.
Image credit: Wikipedia