Sunday 2 December 2018

Advent 1 : Making the Yuletide Gay

My regular pre-Christmas mini-series covers aspects of dating and celebrating the birth of Christ. On each Sunday in Advent I’ll present one common theory on the origin of the dates chosen and the lgbt connections they have. This first article is perhaps the most controversial. Researching into the very first dates for Christmas I read that the first people to celebrate the birth of Christ was an Egyptian Christian sect who actively encouraged same-sex activity. You could say “gay” men created Christmas Day, and it wasn’t on December 25th.

No matter what any religious or secular organisation will tell you nobody knows why 25th December was chosen as Christmas Day, not unless they have private access to some 1st century document that historians have spent the last 2000 years looking for. In recent centuries many people have favoured pagan origins for Christmas Day. This idea was first made at least 1000 years after the time of Christ and aren’t based on documentary proof but proximity to a specific date in a pagan calendar. Even some of the commonly alleged pagan origins of Christmas traditions can’t be proven.

Personally, I like the theory that the early Christians placed the conception of Christ on Roman New Year’s Day – March 25th. Nine months later Christ was born – December 25th. It’s a very neat and tidy theory which I’ll return to next Sunday. You probably prefer one of the other theories that are around, or even none of them.

The first Christians, those mentioned in the Bible and their followers, didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ. They celebrated his death and resurrection instead, after all that’s the whole reason behind Christianity. In fact, no Christian wrote anything about Christ’s life until about the year 70 (the Gospel of Mark). After that many people started writing their own version, filling in any gaps themselves.

In the 2nd century the Christian Church was beginning to get more organised and they collected all the hundreds of books together to decide which ones were most authoritative and closest to their beliefs. These formed the New Testament. The other books, which often said the same things as the ones they selected or didn’t say anything important, were put aside. Despite modern conspiracy theorists these books weren’t rejected, forbidden or supressed, they were merely put aside and then lost (like something you put in a safe place until you need it and then forget – and when you find it you’ve forgotten you put it there and why). Many elements of medieval Nativity plays came from these alleged suppressed gospels.

The first Christian to write about a date for Christ’s birth was a scholar called St. Clement in around the year 200 when he visited Alexandria in Egypt. He wrote that Gnostic sects in the city had tried to choose a date and he gave a list of all the possible dates the Gnostics suggested. Please note that it was just another ordinary date on their liturgical calendar and not the holiday we know today. It wasn't even called Christmas until 1038, and even then it was day of prayer not celebration.

The Gnostics were a varied bunch of Christian sects spread all over the eastern Roman Empire. What they had in common was that they didn’t believe Christ was resurrected so they didn’t celebrate Easter like other Christians. But they did believe in the divinity of Christ and wanted to celebrate his birth instead. To them the God of the Old Testament created an evil world. On the other hand, the God of the New Testament sent Christ to show the world how to combat the evil all around them (that’s an over-simplification of their beliefs).

The Gnostics also had interesting ideas about sex. Because the world is evil, including all the people in it, it made sense to the Gnostics to ensure that no more people are born. They believed that procreative sex was bad and that non-procreative sex with the same gender would save them from the evil world. Of course, the “catholic” Christians in Rome were all in favour of having babies, they still are, so they accused the Gnostics of being promiscuous and of having gay orgies. But there’s nothing in Gnostic writings to indicate they were having any more sex than the “catholics”. This period has been seen as the origin of the Roman Catholic Church’s problems with homosexuality.

One other Gnostic belief was that all religions are the same. In Egypt there were two popular festivals that celebrated the births of two deities on the same day. One was Osiris, the Egyptian god who was chopped into bits and resurrected. The other was a virgin goddess. To the Gnostics Orisis and Christ were the same deity, and the virgin goddess was the Virgin Mary, so they decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on their joint festival day, which on our calendar is January 6th.

The Gnostics believed that the birth of Christ was a manifestation of their God’s message of goodness. The Greek word for “manifestation” is “epiphany”, the name by which January 6th is still known.

This date caught on with other Christians, even ones who thought the Gnostics were heretics (disproving the theory that Christmas is a continuation of the Roman Saturnalia which ended several weeks before). Epiphany is still celebrated as Christmas in the oldest surviving churches – the Orthodox and Coptic churches. The Roman Catholic Church changed their Christmas to December much later.

But what happened to the Gnostics? The more organised Roman Christians persecuted them as heretics over the next few hundred years. Some Gnostic sects were pretty horribly perverted anyway, even by our modern standards. But some of their beliefs continued into later sects, including the Cathars, famous in the Holy Grail legends. Another sect in medieval eastern Europe was the Bogomils. The Catholic Church had by now got the military power and might of the Holy Roman Empire behind them and the Bogomils were suppressed. The same-sex activity promoted by the Gnostics was attributed to the Bogomils and their name became a new derogatory name for gay men. From “Bogomil” we get the word “bugger”.

By tracing “bugger” back through the Bogomils and the Gnostics we have discovered why early same-sex-loving Christians decided to celebrate Christmas Day. So, the Yuletide really is gay!

But where does that leave the popular theory of Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas? That’s what I’ll write about next Sunday, and a right royal topsy-turvy Christmas celebration it is.

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