“Feasting in excess”: a fingerprint phrase in quotations of Gregory Nazianzen on the Nativity

I came across this (rather useless) page, which contained the curious claim:

In 389AD, St Gregory Nazianzen, one of the four fathers of the Greek Church criticized customs of ‘feasting in excess” and “dancing” at Christmas. This criticism arose because these festive excesses were hangovers from the pagan midwinter festivals like Saturnalia when celebrants suspended normal life and pleasure ruled.

The second sentence is the opinion of the writer, who is trying to tie Christmas to paganism somehow.  But what is the reference to Gregory?

If we search for ‘”feasting in excess” “dancing” Gregory Nazianzus’ in Google we get a longer phrase, “feasting to excess, dancing, and crowning the doors” – note the change from “in” to “to” – from the Daily Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement in 2016.  The latter is reviewing (mainly) Mark Forsyth, A Christmas cornucopia : the hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions, also 2016, and quoting from it.  This in turn seems to derive from Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 2001, which uses the exact same words, and gives a reference to “Golby and Purdue, Modern Christmas“.  But we can jump back to 1902, with W.F.Dawson, Christmas: Its Origin and Associations, whose quote is longer still:

against feasting to excess, dancing, and crowning the doors (practices derived from the heathens); urging the celebration of the festival after an heavenly and not an earthly manner.

In turn we find William Sandys in 1833 (Christmas Carols, ancient & modern, p.xiii) exactly the same words, but not in quotes, but as Sandys’ own words.  It is delightful to find, popping up here, the practice of turning indirect speech into direct speech, so common in bogus quotations.

Further back yet, in 1808, we find a quotation at some length in the works of Bishop Hall, although not containing the “excess” bit:

Amongst the rest, that of Gregory Nazianzen is so remarkable, that I may not omit it; as that, which sets forth the excess of joyful respect, wherewith the Ancient Christians were wont to keep this day. “ Let us,” saith he *, “ celebrate this Feast; not in a panegyrical but divine, not in a worldly but supersecular manner: not regarding so much ourselves or ours, as the worship of Christ, &c. And how shall we effect this ? Not by crowning our doors with garlands, nor by leading of dances, nor adorning our streets; not by feeding our eyes; not by delighting our ears with songs; not by effeminating our smell with perfumes; not with humouring our taste with dainties; not with pleasing our touch; not with silken and costly clothes, &c. not with the sparkling of jewels; not with the lustre of gold; not with the artifice of counterfeit colours, &c. let us leave these things to Pagans for their pomps, &c. But we, who adore the Word of the Father, if we think fit to affect delicacies, let us feed ourselves with the dainties of the Law of God; and with those discourses especially, which are fitting for this present Festival.” So that learned and eloquent Father, to his auditors of Constantinople.

The reference is to the “Oration upon the Day of the Nativity of Christ”.  But this itself is a reprint as there is an edition from 1738.

Earlier yet, in 1725, we find in Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, p.154:

Gregory Nazianzen, in that excellent Oration of his upon Christmas-Day, says, Let us not celebrate the Feast after an Earthly, but an Heavenly Manner; let not our Doors be crown’d; let not Dancing be encourag’d; let not the Cross-paths be adorned, the Eyes fed, nor the Ears delighted, &c. Let us not Feast to excess, nor be Drunk with Wine, &c.

And we can go still further, with the same quotation in the sermons of Hugh Latimer (d. 1555), the protestant Bishop of London burned by Bloody Mary, here in a 1758 reprint, on p.782.

I would guess, therefore, that we are looking at a passage of the sermon of Hugh Latimer, which has been transmitted to us, through a side-channel of quotations and re-quotations for nearly 500 years.  It has not been transmitted unaltered, but somehow it has come through.

By contract we can find the NPNF translation of Gregory’s Oration 38: On the Nativity, here. It seems to have influenced these popular works not at all.

Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.

V. And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold or the tricks of colour, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to do despite unto the image of God; Not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, chambering and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil; or rather the harvests of worthless seeds are worthless. Let us not set up high beds of leaves, making tabernacles for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not appraise the bouquet of wines, the kickshaws of cooks, the great expense of unguents. Let not sea and land bring us as a gift their precious dung, for it is thus that I have learnt to estimate luxury; and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance, and all which is beyond absolute need), – and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner.

VI. Let us leave all these to the Greeks and to the pomps and festivals of the Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the reek of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who hath called us together.

There is probably a more modern translation, but these too have most likely stood forth in a void.

It is interesting to see this alternative form of transmission.  Probably the same process is the origin of many a “fragment” in late authors.


14 thoughts on ““Feasting in excess”: a fingerprint phrase in quotations of Gregory Nazianzen on the Nativity

  1. That is a different attitude than Apponius, who loves to compare divine things to the good things of the world. But then, a commentary on Song of Songs is the place for festive wording!

  2. Worth noting: (a) The date which seems to be generally accepted for this oration is 380 or 381, not 389. (Whether 380 or 381 depends on whether it was preached on Dec. 25 or Jan. 6. It is unclear on which of these dates the Nativity was celebrated at Constantinople at that period.)
    (b) Gregory does not mention Saturnalia. He refers, as the translation above rightly has it, “to the Greeks and to the pomps and festivals of the Greeks” (Ἕλλησι παρῶμεν, καὶ Ἑλληνικοῖς κόμποις, καὶ πανηγύρεσιν). And was Saturnalia, a very Roman festival in honour of a very Roman god, ever celebrated at Constantinople? I don’t know, but it seems a bit unlikely. And in any case, it should have been over by Dec. 25. Still, in fairness to whoever wrote the page that started all this, they do say “*like* Saturnalia”. It’s just the Western European viewpoint, yet again…

  3. Okay… Apparently there was a festival of Poseidonia in early December (Or rather, the month of Poseidon), a festival called Haloa or Haloea that was of Demeter and Dionysus on the 8th or 26th of Poseidon, and also a Kore festival that was late in the month of Poseidon, which Epiphanius said was held on the 5th and 6th of January.

    (Which would conflict with the Christian celebration of Epiphany/Theophany, which would have been more about Christ’s Baptism back then.)

    Of course, there were lots of different ethnic groups in Asia Minor who.might have had festivals in Constantinople. And there would have been Chanukah for the Jews.

  4. @Ralph – these are very good points. Why would Gregory be interested in Saturnalia? But the festival was celebrated in the 6th century, as John the Lydian tells us, under the name of the Kronia. So maybe it was transplanted to new Rome, just like the corn dole was.

    @Suburbanbanshee – Useful – thank you. One thing I ask people who say Christmas is a pagan festival is whether they think that if there are two events on the same date then they must be the same event. One need only think of conferences to know otherwise!

  5. But once the Biblical evidence is weighted (particularly the details contained in Luke’s gospel), the late December timeline becomes untenable. At that point ‘coincidence’ with the timing of pagan festivals must be rejected. Moreover, according to this quote in the Catholic Encyclopedia, the early Christians didn’t celebrate it:

    “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the “birthdays” of the gods.”

  6. I thought the Kronia were a summer/harvest festival. But given Graeco-Roman syncretism, it wouldn’t be a great surprise if they were confounded with the Saturnalia.
    And yes, the Nativity was not one of the first Christian festivals to be celebrated, and yes, the fixing of it on a particular date (which was not originally Dec 25) could be (and in this case evidently was) for reasons other than the time of the event commemorated. But, given that the Hellenic and Roman calendars were almost as full as the Christian one has become, whenever it was put it was almost bound to coincide with some pagan festival. Which, since, as St Gregory points out, it was not supposed to be celebrated in any way like a pagan festival, didn’t matter.

  7. We can agree that early Christians (1st & 2nd centuries) didn’t celebrate Christmas. I found this Origen quote enlightening as to their attitude toward birthdays in general:

    “No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod. However, both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. For the Pharaoh killed “the chief baker,,, Herod, the holy prophet John” in prison.,, But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.” — Homilies on Leviticus, Homily 8

    Recall the apostolic warning that “fierce wolves” would infiltrate Christianity and ‘distort the truth’ – Acts 20:29-30 etc.

  8. @Steve, did Origen say in his homily why Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit should “curse” their birthday? I don’t understand.

    I know the early Church did not fast before Christmas but it did celebrate the Birth of Christ. However, it has always been regarded as minor feast compared to the major feast, the Death & Resurrection of Christ.

    Christ’s birth was treated different from ordinary people’s birthdays. Ordinary people didn’t celebrate their birthdays; and in the Coptic synaxarium the death of the saints rather than their birthday is celebrated, for only by the end of life will a saint be known to be a saint. But Christ’s birthday was different, marking the birth of the Saviour. It could not have been ignored since the Gospels didn’t ignore it.

  9. @Dioscorus, while the birth of a child is a joyous occasion and a scriptural blessing, Origen seems to be addressing Adamic sin that we inherit. He cites expressions from Jeremiah, Job, and in this section, David (Psalm 51:7):
    “hear David speaking, “In iniquity I was conceived and in sins my mother brought me forth,” showing that every soul which is born in flesh is polluted by the filth “of iniquity and sin”.

    The Gospels record the momentous occasion of Jesus birth but they don’t record anything about the date or even month. I haven’t found any evidence that early Christians celebrated his birthday, but clearly his life, ministry, death, and resurrection form the foundation of Christian faith. See my above quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia (Christmas being an unknown festival to Irenaeus and Tertullian).

    Thanks for your great blog Roger — many hard-to-find spiritual resources here!

  10. Epiphany was a thing, though, as well as various Jewish birthdays or conception days of prophets, patriarchs, etc. (which were generally considered to fall on the same day as one’s death day, as a sign of greatness).

    The main thing was that early Christians definitely did celebrate the anniversaries of the death days of martyrs, and that they called them “birthdays.”

    Btw, the December date has not been discredited, and Middle Eastern fat-tailed sheep are weird critters with a different yearly schedule.

  11. Looked it up. Christmas is known to have been celebrated as early as 336, and it is listed on 4th century calendars from.about the same time.

    It does not seem likely that it just started when we know about it, especially since that runs into the period of Fun with Persecution and Destruction of Documentary Evidence.

    Meanwhile, we do have St. Hippolytus’ Commentary on the Book of Daniel saying that Jesus was born on December 25, and he was writing that somewhere around AD 204. (He also says that Jesus was born on a Wednesday, which may connect up with Christians fasting on Wednesdays as well as Fridays and Saturdays.) Whether or not he was correct, he certainly seems to be saying something that wasn’t new information to Christians.

    The current theory is that when the Sol Invictus pagan feast was instituted and made mandatory in 274, it was a direct strike against pre-existing celebrations of Christmas. But there is actually no direct evidence that Emperor Aurelian set it up on December 25. Just like Christmas, we only have the December 25 date of Sol Invictus from a 4th century calendar.

  12. @suburbanbanshee the Middle Eastern fat-tailed sheep who are weird critters celebrate Christmas on the same day as all Christians (28 Koiahk). It is the introduction of the Gregorian calendar that separates the two.

  13. Isn’t it telling that none of the gospel writers recorded the date or even month of Jesus’ birth?

    But to complete the subject of post-Biblical commentary, before Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata) recorded two dates, one in April and one in May, that others had arrived on.

    Would shepherds be living outdoors during the rainy and cold winter? Would a census requiring travel be undertaken during such a difficult season?
    “And there were shepherds in the same region, lodging in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.” Berean Literal Bible, Luke 2:8

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