In the 18th century scholars began learning more about an ancient Roman festival to the sun god Sol Invictus from rediscovered documents and archaeology. Because the festival was celebrated on December 25th and that Sol Invictus was a monotheistic (one god) cult like Christianity those scholars assumed this was the origin of Christmas. They didn’t look for evidence. It wasn’t until later that January 6th date was rediscovered as the original date for Christmas.
The Sol Invictus festival was a rebooted celebration of a previously minor cult. When Aurelius became Emperor of Rome in 270 Christianity was becoming more than a minor cult. It was developing into an empire-wide network, and even though Christians were still being persecuted Roman citizens were turning away from their traditional gods to join them.
Bearing in mind that emperors were often declared gods themselves you can understand why Aurelius was a little worried. In order to stop his empire falling victim to Christianity Aurelius invented that monotheistic cult of Sol Invicitus. He chose the festival of Sol Invictus on 25th December 274 to declare that his new god was the only god. It was also his intention to begin a mass persecution of Christians but he was assassinated the following year before he could start. So, the alleged origin of Christmas in the monotheistic Sol Invictus festival on December 25th is wrong. Christmas was already in existence. It “arrived late to the party”, you could say.
|A coin of the Emperor Aurelius: heads - Aurelius himself; tails – Sol Invictus.|
“Elagabal” is one of the variant names adopted by the Roman Emperor Elegabalus (c.203-222). In “The MeteoriteThat Became a God” I wrote about how this teenager was the hereditary High Priest who worshipped a large stone that fell from the sky as a gift from the Sun god El-Gabal. The fate of the meteorite and the gay escapades of Elegabalus are given in that article. He merged the cult of El-Gabal with that of the Roman sun god Sol Invictus to create a new supreme cult, one more important than any other in Rome. But it wasn’t a monotheistic cult like that later cult created by Aurelius.
After Elagabalus was assassinated less than 4 years later the cult of Sol Invictus Elagabal waned and its followers returned to the old gods. This is the background to Aurelius’s monotheistic re-booted Sol Invictus cult in which all of the old gods were officially abolished. Just like Elagabalus’s version Aurelius’s didn’t last long after his death in 275.
The monotheistic cult suddenly returned when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the only religion of the Roman Empire in 324, though he permitted citizens to continue to worship their own faiths. Constantine brought back Sol Invictus as a Christian symbol. It was Constantine who decided to choose one date for Christmas that would replace several being observed by various Christian groups. As I’ve said before, the reason was not to celebrate with big parties and drunkenness but with a day of prayer.
To sum up what we’ve learnt over these past three Advent Sundays:
Before the year 200 the Egyptian gay-sex advocates, the Gnostics, chose January 6th as the birthday of Christ (with prayer, not parties). The European Christians centred on Rome didn’t celebrate birthdays which were seen as pagan.
It wasn’t until too many non-Gnostic Christians began observing January 6th (still no partying) that the European church tried to persuade people away from the Gnostic date with their own. They adopted a date which placed Christ’s conception on the Roman New Year, March 25th, and his birth on December 25th (and still, prayer not party).
Emperor Aurelius, worried about the growing number of Christians in his empire, created a monotheistic cult in 274 based on the Sol Invictus Elegabal cult established by the gay boy-Emperor Elagabalus.
In the 4th century Emperor Constantine made Christianity the empire’s main religion and co-ordinated the churches to get them to decide, among other things, on one date for the birth of Christ. They favoured December 25th but also acknowledged the Gnostic January 6th, popular in eastern churches, and created 12 dedicated days of prayer – the 12 Days of Christmas.
Partying began to creep into Christmas during the early Middle Ages as societies dropped their old traditional pagan winter celebrations. These were turned into celebrations of Epiphany on January 6th. Some elements, like the topsy-turvy role-playing of many pagan festivals like Saturnalia, remained popular.
Centuries later, in 1038, it was finally given the name Christmas after it was considered important enough to have a special Catholic Mass created for it (it’s previous name was just “Day of the Birth of Christ”).
Today people have difficulty separating Christmas from parties, over-indulgence, Santa Calus and shopping. None of these are part of the Christian observance though they are an integral part of our 21st century Christmas.
So far all of these events that have created our 21st century Christmas have been influenced by religious leaders, popular culture and historians. On the last Advent Sunday next week we’ll look at the first scientific attempts to establish the date of the first Christmas and the gay men who made them.