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Pagan Christmas

How was Christmas celebrated in Romano and post-Romano-Britain? The simple answer is that it wasn’t.

Christianity didn’t arrive sufficiently to create an influence until the late 6th century AD long after the Romans had left and Paganism had revived.

Christians existed in Britain long before then but in the early quarter of the Millennium there was no organised attempt to convert the pagan British and it was regarded as just one cult among many.

The Romans persecuted those early Christians because unlike other cults which they were familiar with, Christianity demanded exclusive allegiance to one God from it’s followers, and the Romans were angered by what they perceived as an intolerance of other gods. That’s an interesting perspective, because it implies that the Romans were content to allow anyone to worship anything, so long as they didn’t force it down other peoples throats nor interfere with their general order. Something we could learn from today.

It wasn’t until 313 AD when Christian worship was tolerated within the Roman Empire – thanks to Constantine who realised that a single religion with a single God i.e. Christianity, could be embraced to unite his empire and subsequently achieve military success.

Meanwhile back in Britain Paganism was the overwhelming religion and Christianity was firmly in the minority. Indeed, after the Romans left it was a wonder it survived at all – but it did, and how it did is a story for another post.

The most important date for Pagans then and now is the Winter Solstice which always occurs around December 21st marking the return of the light after the longest night of the year. They call it Yule.

Of course, those Pagans would not have known it was December 21st because the calendar as we know it was centuries away – but they would have known it as the Midwinter Festival, and their calendar was dictated by the solstices and equinoxes and the phases of the sun and the moon, and given more accuracy by structures such as Stonehenge (if it’s believed that it’s some kind of observatory).

That’s pretty close to Christmas Day, and the Pagans believe that the early Christians hijacked the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus because they saw that everyone else was having a festive time already. A remarkable coincidence nevertheless and debate rages over the exact birth-date of Christ, with it ranging from anywhere between September and February. But we all accept that it’s December 25th now and it will never change. What matters is that he was born and died and was resurrected (at Easter – which is another pre-Christian Pagan festival and the subject of another post nearer the time).

So back to those annoying Pagans who blame the Christians for hijacking their festivities. They don’t hate the Christians, but they are obviously peeved with them for superimposing their great year end festivals which were very popular in the Graeco-Roman world.

Take the custom of giving presents and over-indulging – it was those Romans who started that with their festival of Saturnalia around December 17th. Saturn was the Roman God of agriculture and the giving of gifts symbolised the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor during the season of greatest hardship. Then the next one was the solstice feast of Mithras, the Roman God of Light on December 25th, a festival to mark the renewal of hope. This is the one most likely adopted by Christians in the 4th century as the birthday of Jesus.

The Pagan Yuletide has it’s origins from Scandinavia, and also known as “Mother-Night” from Anglo-Saxon traditions. New Years Eve was celebrated by the Romans who dedicated it to Janus, their two-faced god who looked both forward and back. Part of the celebration was to gather fir trees and holly – which is what we now do at the beginning of the Christmas season.

Finally, at this time, whatever your faith, whatever you believe in, the whole season is about birth, light, giving, and celebration. Peace on Earth may be a distant dream of hope, but it’s a worthy cause and the key message is tolerance, understanding, compassion and care for your fellow man.

That’s the Christmas message, and who could argue with that? Merry Christmas! Merry Yuletide!

November 13, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Merry Xmas to you and yours and I never knew the half of this, well done.


    Comment by spookmoor | November 15, 2014 | Reply

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