There is a certain amount of wild talk around online about a festival of bruma, or the brumalia, connected with Christmas. It would be interesting to find out what is truly known and discoverable from ancient sources about the nature and date of this event. So I reached for the OLD!
According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary (p.243), the word bruma is the superlative of brevis (=short), i.e. breui-ma which became breu-ma. Three meanings are listed.
1. The shortest day, the winter solstice or the period during which this occurs, mid-winter; also (astronomical) the position of the sun at the winter solstice.
References are given for this:
ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam Cato, Agr. 17.1; Varro L. 6.8. eas (litteras) mihi post brumam reddiderunt Cicero ad fam. 3.7.3; dies continuos xxx sub bruma esse noctem Caesar, Gallic war 5.13.3; Vitruvius 9.3.3; Livy 43.18.1; Ovid fasti 1.163; Manilius 2.404; Columella Arb. 24; Pliny the Elder, NH 18.231; Terence Ph. 709; Cicero Div. 2.52; solis accessus discessusque solstitiis brumisque cognosci N.D. (?) 2.19. (A couple more references to the latter meaning are also given)
References are given for this, and also for a third meaning expressing “a winter” as a period of time.
The adjective brumalis is also listed, meaning “connected with the winter solstice”, the tropic of capricorn, or merely “wintry”. For the first meaning it gives
Cicero Arat. 295 (61), de orat. 3.178, Div. 2.33; Lucretius 5.616; Ovid Pont. 2.4.25.
I need to look these up and tabulate them here.
A google search revealed remarkably little of substance, but apparently there is something in John Lydus, De mensibus (which we have met before!). However doing the same search via an anonymising proxy reveals more.
John Malalas in his Chronicle 7.7 gives an account of the origins of the festival. This tells us it was in the winter, and instituted by Romulus (or “Romus” as Malalas calls him).
Because of this Romus devised what is known as the Brumalia, declaring, it is said, that the emperor of the time must entertain his entire senate and officials and all who serve in the palace, since they are persons of consequence, during the winter when there is a respite from righting. He began by inviting and entertaining first those whose names began with alpha, and so on, right to the last letter; he ordered his senate to entertain in the same way. They too entertained the whole army, and those they wanted. . . . This custom of the Brumalia has persisted in the Roman state to the present day. — [The Chronicle of John Malalas, trans. E. Jeffreys et al. (Byzantina Australiensia 4, Melbourne, 1986), p. 95]
John the Lydian in his de Mensibus book IV discusses the Brumalia. According to that secondary source it was celebrated between November 24 and December 17. Apparently John says that the people all call it the festival of Cronos (i.e. Saturn). Unfortunately I can’t see the references in that text.
Lydus’ description of the Brumalia, however, hints that the situation was not in fact quite so simple. This popular holiday, celebrated between November 24 and December 17, was a time of dinner parties and wishing one’s friends “vives annos.” It had an extremely long history connected with the celebration of the winter solstice, and Lydus gives many details of the pagan rites associated with it in antiquity. The holiday continued to be celebrated in Lydus’ time, for he notes that “to greet someone by name during the Brumalia is a rather recent development,” and more pointedly, “the truth of the matter is that people call this the festival of Cronos; consequently the Church shrinks away from this affair.” He goes on to tell about Cronos and the association of chthonic demons with the festival. If it were not for the mention of ecclesiastical disapproval, we would not know that the festival had any contemporary dimension at all. This is all the stranger because Agathias reported without censure of any sort that the Brumalia was being celebrated by the citizens of Constantinople at the time of a great earthquake in 577. Malalas also described the contemporary imperial celebration without flinching. We know that Justinian celebrated the Brumalia on a lavish scale with banquets and spectacles throughout the empire, as Choricius of Gaza’s Oration attests. In 521 Justinian had inaugurated his first consulship with magnificent entertainments during the Brumalia (on the day that began with the first letter of his name). As spelled out in Novel 105 some years later, this was in accordance with his attitude about the ceremonial responsibilities of the consulship to provide parades, games, and theatrical productions for the populace. The pious emperor felt no impropriety in celebrating the Brumalia together with the consulship. In another law concerning pagan worship, Justinian reiterated the idea that ancient festivals might be celebrated by his subjects – as long as no pagan sacrifices were performed. We see here the grounds on which he was prepared to celebrate time-honored festivals. He was no more concerned about the “paganism” of the Brumalia than he was about that of the consulship. Both were simply part of the secular ceremonial of everyday late-antique life, as far as the palace and the public were concerned. On one level de Mensibus can be seen as a simple expression of this interest and of the acceptance of certain civic celebrations.
Lydus’ comment on ecclesiastical disapproval, however, suggests a more complicated situation and requires that we look to a later period. Such ceremonial did not forever remain immune from charges of religious impropriety. By the end of the next century, attitudes would change considerably. The Quinisextum Council (“in Trullo” ) held in Constantinople in 692 proscribed in its sixty-second canon celebrations of the kalends, Vota, Brumalia, and Panegyris, festivals going on in Lydus’ Constantinople and all described in de Mensibus as they existed in Roman antiquity. Pagan associations that the church found merely objectionable in Lydus’ day assumed greater significance in the seventh century. Why did Lydus make a point of the church’s censure when the Brumalia was being celebrated without comment by the emperor and devout Christians? He evidently recognized its pagan (as opposed to merely antique) history, but did not wish to elaborate further. Perhaps the antiquarian material had not been completely neutralized after all. [Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman past, 1992, p.64-6]
Just as an aside, every time I read a passage of Maas’ excellent book, it makes my fingers itch to commission someone to translate the 111 pages of book 4 of de Mensibus! Or even just the 8 pages on December! It looks as if the passage is on p.174 (PDF p.276) of the 1903 edition which is online. But back to the brumalia.
The festival was proscribed by the Quinsext synod (“in Trullo”) in 692.
Tertullian apparently also mentions the festival (De idololatria 14).
Suggestions are welcome as to where else we might look!
UPDATE: Cato, Agricultura 17.1:
Robus materies, item ridica, ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam semper tempestiva est. Cetera materies quae semen habet, cum semen maturum habet, tum tempestiva est.
Oak wood and also wood for vine props, is always ripe for cutting at the time of the winter solstice. Other species which bear seed are ripe when the seeds are mature, while those which are seedless are ripe when they shed bark.
Here brumam is used to mean “winter”, as an adjective for solstitium. Or possibly “shortest solstice”?
Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.8:
Alter motus solis est, aliter ac caeli, quod movetur a bruma ad solstitium. Dicta bruma, quod brevissimus tunc dies est; solstitium, quod sol eo die sistere videbatur, quo ad nos versum proximus est. Sol cum venit in medium spatium inter brumam et solstitium, quod dies aequus fit ac nox, aequinoctium dictum. Tempus a bruma ad brumam dum sol redit, vocatur annus, quod ut parvi circuli anuli, sic magni dicebantur circites ani, unde annus.
8. There is a second motion of the sun, differing from that of the sky, in that the motion is from bruma ‘winter’s day’ to solstitium ‘solstice.’ Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissimus ‘shortest’: the solstitium, because on that day the sol ‘sun’ seems sistere ‘to halt,’ on which it is nearest to us. When the sun has arrived midway between the bruma and the solstitium, it is called the aequinoctium ‘equinox,’ because the day becomes aequus ‘equal’ to the nox ‘night.’ The time from the bruma until the sun returns to the bruma, is called an annus ‘year,’ because just as little circles are anuli ‘rings,’ so big circuits were called ani, whence comes annus ‘year.’
This tells us that the bruma and the solstice are not the same.
Note: thanks to Bill Thayer for spotting the mistyping of De mensibus as De mensuribus! Oops!