When to take down the Christmas decorations? A canon of the 2nd Council of Tours (567)

When should we take down the Christmas tree?  A google search reveals confusion.  The general idea is that we do so on Twelfth Night, but not when that is.  However it seems pretty clear that it should be on the evening of the 5th January, because 6th January is the festival of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men are commemorated.  Naturally other customs exist.   I have read that this custom of taking down the tree on Twelfth Night is Victorian,[1] but I was unable to find any source for it.

What is not easily found online is any indication of what custom originates when, where and why.  Instead there is a mass of lazy journalism, repeating hearsay.

Very commonly found is some variant of the following:

In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English called Christmastide. [2]

The old Catholic Encyclopedia article adds:

The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the “twelve days” from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast;…

Naturally such claims deserve verification.

The acts and canons of the second council of Tours may be found online in J. Hardouin, Acta Counciliorum…, volume 3 (1714), column 355, here.

A quick look at the list of the canons reveals that canon 11 has nothing to do with the matter, despite what the Catholic Encyclopedia says.  The title of canon 17 however is as follows:

XVII. De observatione jejuniorum monachis obeunda.

17.  On the observation of fasts that must be attended to by the monks.

The text of the canon is as follows.  Usefully Hefele’s summary of the canon (found here) is in fact nearly a  literal translation of it, so I will give that.

XVII.  De jejuniis vero antiqua a monachis instituta serventur, ut de Pascha usque ad quinquagesimam, exceptis Rogationibus, omni die fratribus prandium praeparetur: post quinquagesimam tota hebdomade ex asse jejunent. Postea usque ad Kalendas Augusti ter in septimana jejunent, secunda, quarta & sexta die, exceptis his qui aliqua infirmitate constricti sunt. In Augusto, quia quotidie missae sanctorum sunt, prandium habeant. In Septembri toto, & Octobri, & Novembri, sicut prius dictum est, ter in septimana. De Decembri usque ad natale Domini, omni die jejunent. Et quia inter natale Domini & epiphania omni die festivitates sunt, itemque prandebunt. Excipitur triduum illud, quo ad calcandam gentilium consuetudinem, patres nostri statuerunt privatas in Kalendis Januarii fieri litanias, ut in ecclesiis psallatur, & hora octava in ipsis Kalendis Circumcisionis missa Deo propitio celebretur. Post epiphania vero usque ad quadragesimam ter in septimana jejunent.

17. In regard to the fasts of monks the old ordinance shall continue. From Easter to Pentecost (Quinquagesima = Πεντεκοστή), with the exception of the Rogation Days, a prandium (breakfast or luncheon, before the cœna, about midday) shall be prepared daily for the monks. After Pentecost they shall fast for a week, and thenceforward, until the 1st of August, they shall fast three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, except the sick. In August there shall be prandium daily, because there are daily Missæ Sanctorum (not de feria). In September, October, and November, again, the fasts must be three times a week, as before; but in December, until Christmas, daily. From Christmas to Epiphany there shall be daily prandium, because every day is a festival. Excepted are only the three days in the beginning of January, in which the fathers, in order to oppose the heathen usages, ordered private litanies. On the 1st of January, the festival of the Circumcision, Mass shall be sung at eight o’clock. From the Epiphany until Lent there must be three fasts in the week.

This is plainly some way short of justifying the more exaggerated claims that we hear.  It’s a regulation of when monks are to fast, rather than a “proclamation” for the people at large.  But it is still very interesting.

My own Christmas tree will be taken down tomorrow on January 5th, during the day before Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany.  But I have attempted to discover the basis for the claim that doing so is a Victorian tradition by using a Google Books search.

Certainly the requirement to take down the tree and decorations before January 6th is made very firmly in this 1892 volume, Mary Sherwood, The Art of Entertaining, page 379, although the author confuses Twelfth Night with Epiphany.

The Christmas green was once the home of the peace-loving wood-sprite. Christmas evergreens and red berries make the most effective interior decorations, their delightful fragrance, their splendid colour renders the palace more beautiful, and the humble house attractive. Before Twelfth Night, January 6, they must all be taken down. The festivities of this great day were much celebrated in mediaeval times, and the picture by Rubens, “ The King Drinks,” recalls the splendour of these feasts. It is called Kings’ Day to commemorate the three kings of Orient, who paid their visit to the humble manger, bringing those first Christmas gifts of which we have any account.

In British Popular Customs, Present and Past (1891), on page 53 here I find a quotation from an 1847 book, George Soane, New Curiosities of Literature, vol. 1 (1847), p. 51 here, discussing Candlemas (2nd Feb):

The rosemary, the bay, the ivy, the holly, and the mistletoe, the Christmas decorations of hall and cottage, were now pulled down, when according to the popular superstition not a branch, nor even a leaf, should be allowed to remain,… In their place, however, the ‘greener box was upraised,” and Christmas now was positively at an end. Some, indeed, considered this to have been the case on Twelfth Night; and old Tusser, in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry,” strongly contends for it; but then his head was more full of the cart and plough than of regard for old customs: and, like any other master, he was naturally anxious that the holidays should be ended, and the labourers should get to work again as soon as possible; and certes, merry-making, however agreeable it may be, will not help to dig the land or sow the grain. But in spite of these wise saws, the truth of which nobody would contest, human feelings are stronger than human reason, and customs, when they tend to pleasure, will maintain their ground, till they are superseded—not by privations, but by other forms of amusement. Having therefore tolerated the rites of Candlemas Eve, we may as well put up with those of Candlemas Day.

This Thomas Tusser published his didactic poem, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry as long ago as 1557.  In the 1812 edition by William Mavor, on page 270 here, he is talking about “Plough Monday”, the first after Twelfthtide.  The annotator of this reprint notes:

Till after Twelfth-day, very little country business of any kind used to be carried on. Feasting and visiting filled up the period between Christmas and that day, which was always observed with due solemnities. Plough Monday, which speedily followed, was to remind the cultivators of the earth of their proper business; and a spring was given to the activity of domestics, by some peculiar observances. The men and maid servants strove to outvie each other in early rising, on Plough Monday. If the ploughman could get any of the implements of his vocation by the fireside, before the maid could put on her kettle, she forfeited her Shrovetide cock. The evening concluded with a good supper.

This rather suggests that Twelfth day, January 5th, was the last day of the Christmas season even then.  But of course no Christmas tree was known in that day.

I was unable to find anything useful before 1800.  The Google Books search is very poor in many respects.  So the matter must therefore be left open for now.

  1. [1]Such as this.
  2. [2]E.g. the Wikipedia article on Twelfth Night here.

Some notes on “De solstitiis et aequinoctis” (CPL 2277)

There are very few sources for a Roman festival of the sun on 25th December.  The main one is the entry in the Chronography of 354, in the Philocalian Calendar, labelling the day as “Natalis Invicti”, the birthday of Sol Invictus, the state sun-god.[1]  Next to it is a 13th century scholiast on Dionysius bar-Salibi.  But the third is an obscure homily generally referred to as De solstitiis et aequinoctiis, (or De solstitia et aequinoctia) which contains, towards the end, the following aside:

Sed et dominus noster nascitur mense decembris . . . VIII Kal. Ian. . . . Sed et invicti natalem apellant.  Quis utique tam invictus nisi dominus noster qui mortem subactam devicit?  Vel quod dicant solis esse natalem, ipse est sol iustitiae de quo malachias propheta dixit: “orietur vobis timentibus nomen ipsius sol iustitiae et sanitas est in pennis eius.”

But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eighth before the calends of January [25 December] . . . But they also call it the “Birthday of the invincible one” (Invictus). But who then is as invincible as our lord who defeated the death he suffered?  Or if they say that this is the birthday of the sun, well He Himself is the Sun of Justice of whom the prophet Malachi said (4:2), “But for you who fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health is in his wings.”[2]

The implication of this is that Christ as Sol Justitiae is a deliberate replacement for the pagan Sol Invictus.  It is a key piece of evidence in the “Calculation” theory of the origins of Dec. 25 as Christmas.[3]

So it’s an interesting passage.  Yet there is a remarkable vagueness in most articles which reference this text, as to what it is and where it may be found.

In the article quoted above, the author tells us that the full title of the work is De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis Domini Nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae (“On the solstice and equinox of the conception and birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and John the Baptist”).

The work is in fact listed in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum as CPL 2277.   The date of composition is  uncertain.  The bible citations suggest an African origin, but there are also two terms which are Syriac.[4]

It is actually part of a collection of 38 sermons in Latin, all attributed to John Chrysostom, whose existence was documented for the first time by Dom André Wilmart in 1918.[5]  It is the 17th item in that collection.  Wilmart gives the following details:

Title: Iterum de natiuitate domini et Iohannis Baptistae et conceptionis de solistitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et natiuitatis domini nostri Iesu Christi et Johannis Baptistae.
Opening words: Nescio an quisquam ausus sit arcanum, fratres, ante Christi natiuitatem intellegere uel terminasse cursum horarum dierum ac noctium per quos solistitia et aequinoctia cognoscere possit.
Closing words:  ….Migrauerat enim gratia et ueritas a Iudaeis quia “lex per Moysen data est, nam gratia et ueritas per Iesum Christum facta est”. In Christo Iesu domino nostro qui uiuit et regnat cum patre et spiritu sancto per immortalia saecula saeculorum amen

Wilmart (p.306) gives a list of 25 copies of this collection of homilies, all with the same content in the same order, beginning in the 9th century.  Among the 9th century copies is Saint-Gall 103, which is online here.  Our text is pp. 176-191.  It begins on p. 176:

St Gall 103, p.176.

Note how the title is singular, but has been corrected to plural by another hand.  Our passage is on page 190, and the work ends on page 191:

St Gall 103, p.191

There are still other copies in existence.  One of these, transmitted independently, attributes the work to an otherwise unknown author – Pontius Maximus. This is  given in a 12th century manuscript, today Troyes 523, fol.205v-210v, originally from Clairvaux as the colophon on fol. 210v makes clear.  It is online here.  The text is the last work in the manuscript, which also contains 15 treatises in Latin by Eusebius of Emesa , followed by 5 by Tertullian.

Ms. Troyes 523, folio 205v. Incipit of De Solstitia.

The red text tells us that, after the explicit for Tertullian, de paenitentia, the author is Pontius Maximus, and the title is de solstitiis et aequinoctiis…, i.e. plural.  I have also found an article that claims the work is “sometimes attributed to one Pontius Maximus or Pontius Maximianus, conjectured to be an African, but thought by others to be of anonymous Syrian origin.”[6]

There are only two editions of the text.

It was first printed in Divi Ioannis Chrysostomi Archiepiscopi Constantinopolitani opera, quae hactenus versa sunt, omnia, ed. Desiderius Erasmus (Vol. 2). Basel: Frobenius (1530), p. 336-342. (Online at Google Books).  No doubt this was printed from whatever manuscript happened to come to hand.  There are reprints of this, including a 1547 (col. 1285-1294) and a 1588 edition.  I’m not sure how late this was reprinted.

The only other edition is B. Botte, Les origines de la noël et de l’épiphanie (Series: Textes et études liturgiques 1). Louvain: Abbaye du Mont César (1932) who appended a version of the text on p. 93-105.  Hijmans states that this is not a critical edition, but is based on a collation of  a few manuscripts – somewhere I read that this was just three of the oldest.  The Botte edition text was also reprinted in the Patrologiae Latinae Supplementum vol. 1 (1959), pp.557-567.

I’ve tried to OCR the 1530 text, but it involves correcting every word!  So I’ve placed an interlibrary loan for the 1932 book, and I hope that we can at least get the Latin text online.

This is the sort of exercise that reminds us how much there is to do!


  • The 9th century Oxford Laud Misc. 452, originally at Lorsch, is also online here.  Our text is on f.77r-83r.
  • The 9-10th century Paris BNF lat. 12140 is online here, although in monochrome.  Our homily is on f.87v-98r.
  1. [1]Natalis may also mean the date of the founding of a temple, and other deities than Sol Invictus were called “invictus”, but this probably does refer to Sol Invictus.
  2. [2]Steven Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the winter solstice, and the origins of Christmas,” in: Mouseion III.3 (2003), 377-398, esp. 379-80; also the Catholic Encyclopedia version.
  3. [3]See S. K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas, p.97.
  4. [4]S. K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas, p.97. “The text is generally thought to date from after the earliest notation of Christmas on the calendar, but before a feast was widely celebrated on that date, probably the early fourth century. The Latin text betrays certain African turns of phrase, but also two specifically Syriac terms.[173]” and “173. Botte, Origines, 91, and Engberding, “Der 25. Dezember,” 36, both explore these in some detail.” – H. Engberding, “Der 25. Dezember als Tag der Feier der Geburt des Herrn,” Archiv fur Liturgiewissenschaft 2 (1952), 25-43.  Unfortunately neither is accessible to me.
  5. [5]A. Wilmart, “La collection des 38 homélies latines de saint Jean Chrysostome,” in: Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1918), 305-327.  There is also a study that I have not seen in German: W. Wenk, Zur Sammlung der 38 Homilien des Chrysostomus Latinus (mit Edition der Nr. 6, 8, 27, 32 und 33), Wiener Studien Beiheft 10, Wien 1988.
  6. [6]R. Love, “Bede and John Chrysostom”, Journal of Medieval Latin 17 (2007) 72-87, p.77, identifying a quote from our work in Bede.

Was there no festival of Sol on 25 December before 324 AD?

Most of us are aware that the 25th December is labelled as the “Natalis [solis] Invicti” in the Chronography of 354; specifically in the 6th part, which contains the so-called “Calendar of Philocalus” (online here), listing the state holidays.  Sol Invictus was introduced into Rome by Aurelian in 274 AD as a state cult, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this state holiday was introduced at the same time.   The Chronography also lists the saints’ days, in another calendar dating from 336 (online here), including Christmas on 25 December.  It is often supposed, therefore, that the date of Christmas was selected precisely to coincide with this solar holiday.  This theory was advanced by H. Usener in his book Das Weihnachstfest (1889, rep. 1911) with a follow-up in his posthumous article on Sol Invictus in 1905.[1]

However I have lately seen claims that, far from Christmas being located on the date of a pagan holiday, the truth is that Julian the Apostate (or someone) established a solar festival on the pre-existing date of Christmas!  These claims seem to derive from an interesting article by Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas”.[2]  Hijman is a revisionist, so it is necessary to be wary, but I thought that it might be useful to review some of the evidence.

In the Chronography of 354, in the “Filocalian calendar”, some holidays – all associated with emperors or gods – are marked by chariot races (circenses missus).  These are also in multiples of 12 races, with one exception.  The sole exception is the entry for 25 December:


Which is the natalis of Invictus (rather than Sol) and 30 races, rather than a multiple of 12.  It is, therefore, an anomalous entry.

Hijmans makes some very interesting points about this.

  • Firstly, he argues that celebrating festivals with chariot races rather than sacrifices was an innovation of Constantine, introduced after Constantine defeated Licinius in 324.  It’s not an ancient thing.  So all these chariot races were introduced then.
  • Secondly, since all the ancient festivals were multiples of 12, it is clear that no festival of Sol existed on 25 December at that time.  If it had, it too would be a multiple of 12.  Therefore it is a later addition; as the irregular naming also indicates.
  • Thirdly he speculates that this entry may not even have been present in the original copy made in 354, but added later.
  • This leaves the first definite mention of a solar festival on this date to Julian the Apostate’s Hymn to King Helios, in December 362.

This is an interesting argument indeed.  What do we make of it?

Hijmans does not detail his first point, merely referring to M. Wallraff, Christus Verus Sol (2001), p.132, “citing Eusebius”. Unfortunately the Wallraff volume is inaccessible to me.   So we have to leave this point unchecked.

The second point relies on the accurate transmission of numerals in copies of the Chronography.  I am not clear whether this is actually reliable, or whether the text printed by Mommsen – which is the basis for the online version – is a critical text or not.   The Dec. 25 date could really have read “XXXVI” for all we know.

Obviously speculation, as in the third point, is not evidence.  I would suggest that we should not infer interpolation without need.

All the same this is a very interesting point.  Is it really possible that this was the case?

  1. [1]H. Usener, “Sol Invictus”, RhM 60 (1905) pp. 465-491.
  2. [2]Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas: A contribution to the modern construct of late antique solar syncretism”, in: M. Espagne & P. Rabault-Feuerhahn (edd.), Hermann Usener und die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2011. 139-152.  Online here, although the online version appears to be a draft.  However Hijmans’ full thesis, with extensive plates, is online here.

Dubious claims: Pope Julius I decided that Jesus was born on 25 December?

Christmas comes round every year, and every year somebody will tell us that Pope Julius I (337-352 AD) in 350, or 352, or 320 – the supposed date varies – decided that Jesus was born on 25 December.  Julius lived under the Arian emperor Constantius II, and was an ally of Athanasius, but is otherwise obscure.

I don’t want to enter into the larger question of why we celebrate Christmas on 25 December.  But the association with Pope Julius I seems worth probing.

Here are some samples of the claims made:

In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date and in 529 AD Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday.[1]

By the fourth century, however, many Christian groups had begun to observe Christ’s birthday, though the day chosen for the celebration differed from place to place. Christians in the East generally celebrated on January 6; those in the West on December 25. Others set dates in March, April, or May. About 350 AD, Pope Julius set December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. This corresponded with the Roman feast of Saturnalia, the festival of the Unconquered Sun.[2]

In the late 330s AD, Pope Julius 1 declared: “December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.” … [3]

Pretty confident sounding!  But … no references in any case.

But it doesn’t sound right anyway.  This is the 4th century.  A Pope doesn’t have the authority to set anything for the whole of Christendom.  He’s just one of the patriarchs.  He can make a decision for his area of the world, but why would that be definitive?  How could be it “the official date”?

A more significant problem is the lack of reference.  We only know about what people in the ancient world did if they left behind some document which was copied down the years; or else an inscription, or something.  But I was quite unable to locate any reference to such an item.

Fortunately in 2015 Glen L. Thompson edited and translated the correspondence of Pope Julius I.[4]  This consists of 2 letters from Pope Julius I, and 4 letters to him.  None have any mention of the birthday of Christ.  They are all concerned with the Arian dispute.

But I learn from Dr T.’s introduction that there are a further 26 (!) pieces that have the name of Pope Julius I on them, and every one of them wrongly.  In fact, in almost every case, the name is attached fraudulently!  This is unusual in antiquity.  Some were Apollinarist works, from the late 4th century, which being banned, were circulated under other names.  Some are from the medieval period, the Forged Decretals.  25 of them do not mention the birthday of Christ.

The 26th item (given the letter Z by Dr T.) is different – it does!  It’s a letter, supposedly from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I, and quoted in two versions, the first by an obscure medieval bishop, John of Nicaea; and the other anonymous, but probably of the same era or later.

In the letter, Cyril tells us that his clergy celebrate the birthday of Christ and the baptism of Christ together, on 6th January.  But, he adds, they find this a pain, because they have to start in Bethlehem, do the service for the birth, and then travel down to the Jordan to do the baptism service.  This, he says, they found burdensome, and they had to rush the services.  So he is writing to Pope Julius to ask if the Pope would consult the archives of the Jewish church in Jerusalem.  These, he says, were seized by the Romans under Titus when the city fell in 70 AD and transported to Rome.  Underneath the letter, the 9th century author then adds that the pope did so, and identified 25 December as the birthday of Jesus.

The item in question is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum under the spuria of Cyril of Jerusalem as CPG 3598.  The text can be found in Greek with modern Latin translation in the Patrologia Graeca vol. 33 columns 1208-9, together with a page of introduction (online here).  There is also a discussion of it in the old Dictionary of Christian Antiquities here.

Let’s see what it says.

There are in fact two versions given in the PG.  (I’m not going to type up the Greek, but I find that Abbyy Finereader 12 reads the Latin side very well, so I append it).

The first item is by John of Nicaea, from a letter to Zacharias, Catholicos of Greater Armenia, titled De Christi Nativitate.  (I’m not sure who John of Nicaea is, but the PG says 11-12th c.; Thompson says 9th).[5]  The works of John of Nicaea as a whole are in the PG 96, and our letter is col. 1441f.  (Update: see my post here for “John of Nicaea” who turns out to be 9th century) Here is the excerpt as given in the PG 33, however.

Once upon a time, Cyril – [not he] who sent a letter to Constantine, but he who succeeded him in his see – wrote to Julius, bishop of Rome, in these words: “Great labour and expense is caused at great and solemn festivals which are celebrated together on one day.  For the readings and order of service of both festivities end up incomplete, such that the nativity and the baptism of Christ cannot be celebrated [together].  So, seeing that we cannot on one day be both [in Bethlehem, and] in the place of the baptizism, (for Bethlehem is three miles south of Jerusalem, and the Jordan is fifteen miles to the east), may we appoint your sanctity to search out all the commentaries (συγγράμματα, i.e. writings) of the Jews, which Titus Caesar looted and carried off to Rome from Jerusalem.  Possibly you will discover for a fact the day of the nativity of Christ and our God.”

Then Julius the Roman carefully enquired into this question.  When he had collected all the writings of the Jews, which were captured and taken to Rome, he discovered a certain commentary of the time of the historian Josephus, written by himself: in which he said that, in the seventh month, on the feast of Scenopegia [or Tabernacles], on the day of expiation, the angel of the Lord appeared, and the dumb priest was restored, who had remained without voice until that time when his wife Elizabeth in old age gave birth.

Scripsit aliquando Cyrillus[non is],qui epistolam ad Constantinum [leg. Constantium] dedit sed is qui post ipsum in ejus sede successit, ad Julium Romanum episcopum in haec verba: «Magnus labor ac dispendium magnis ac solemnibus festivitatibus contingit, quod una  die celebrantur. Nam ambarum festivitatum lectiones et ordo [officii] imperfecta manent, eo quod nativitas et baptisma Christi [simul] celebrari nequeant. Quoniam itaque non possumus in una die [in Bethlehem, et] in locum baptismatis occurrere (nam Bethlehem tribus millibus ad meridiem ab Hierusalem distat, et Jordanis quindecim millibus ad orientem), jubeat sanctitas tua omnia Judaeorum commentaria investigari, quae praedatus Caesar Titus Romam Hierosolymis advexit. Fortassis certo reperies diem nativitatis Christi et Dei nostri. »

Tunc Julius Romanus studiose de hac rogatione quaesivit. Cumque omnia Judaeorum scripta, quae capta et Romam deportata fuerant, collegisset, quoddam Josephi temporum historici commentarium deprehendit ab ipso conscriptum: in quo habebatur, quod mense septimo, in festo Scenopegiae [seu Tabernaculorum]. Expiationis die, Dei angelus apparuit, sacerdosque mutus redditus, sine voce mansit ad illud usque tempus, quo Elisabet uxor ejus in senectute peperit.

That is not all that helpful, really.  Cyril of Jerusalem wrote to Constantine about a fiery cross that appeared over Jerusalem; but this is a later Cyril, mentioned by Epiphanius (Panarion 66.20).

But a second version of the story exists, in which the letter is attributed not to Cyril but to Juvenalis, under the title A)nagkai/a dih/ghsij.  This is in the BNF in Paris; the old royal library shelfmark was Bibi. Reg. Cod. 2428, fol. 120.[6] Here it is:

However Juvenalis, patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote to Julius, patriarch of Rome, this about the matter: “On one day I cannot be both at Bethlehem and at the Jordan.  In fact the Jordan is 25 miles east of Jerusalem, while holy Bethlehem is 6 miles to the south of the city; nor can I in one day complete both celebrations.  So I ask your sanctity, Father, that you would scrutinise the commentaries, and give us, from an accurate examination, information on this matter, written by yourself, venerable one: on what day Christ the Lord was born, and on what day baptised.  For we understand correctly that books of commentaries from the early days were transferred from Jerusalem to Rome by Titus and Vespasian.”

Having received these letters, Julius patriarch of Rome investigated the commentaries, and he found that our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December, and after 30 years from his nativity was baptised by John in the river Jordan, on the 6th January.  Well, when the fathers were dividing up the festival based on this investigation, among many a murmuring arose… etc.

Scripsit autem patriarcha Hierosolymitanus Juvenalis ad patriarcham Romanum Julium ea de re: « Non possum una die conferre me ad Bethlehem et ad Jordanem. Etenim Jordanis distat ab urbe Hierusalem ad orientem milliaribus 25, sancta vero Bethlehem ad austrum civitatis milliaribus sex; nec possum una die ambo festa peragere. Rogo itaque sanctitatem tuam, Pater, ut scruteris commentaria, et des nobis ex accurata disquisitione, per tuum scriptum, venerande, ejus rei notitiam: qua die natus sit Christus Dominus, et qua die baptizatus. Probe enim scimus commentarios ab initio libros e Hierosolymis Romam delatos fuisse per Titum et Vespasianum.»

His litteris acceptis Julius Romae patriarcha investigavit commentarios, invenitque quod 25 Decembris natus est Dominus noster Jesus Christus, et post annos 30 a nativitate sua baptizatus est a Joanne in Jordane fluvio, sexta mensis Januarii. Secundum ergo hanc investigationem cum Patres festum divisissent, inter multos ortum est murmur. Etc.

That’s clear enough.  It’s the same story, with different details.  But there are obvious difficulties.

  • Juvenal of Jerusalem held the see from 422-458; Julius I held his see from 337-352.  So clearly Juvenal wrote no letter to Rome.
  • Cyril of Jerusalem held his see from 350, but the letter states that a later Cyril is involved.  Julius died in 352.
  • The DCB tells us that in Palestine the practice of combining the celebration of Christmas and the baptism of Christ continued well after these times. (p.359 n.c).  The PG introduction informs us that Chrysostom’s homily on the nativity says the same, but this I have not checked.  It also says that Basil of Seleucia (ca. 448) states in the Laudatio S. Stephani that the innovation of celebrating the nativity separately began with that Juvenal.
  • Josephus does not specify the date of the birth of Christ in any extant work.  But it seems questionable whether any such Jewish archives really existed, or at least, not by the middle of the 4th century; and how would a medieval figure know of this, other than through apocryphal works like the “letter of Pilate” cycle?

To conclude, this is a letter with no claim to authenticity.  This leaves us where we started; there is no evidence that Pope Julius I ever set the nativity of Christ to 25 December.

UPDATE: I was curious about John of Nicaea, so I went to look in the PG 96.  He wrote only this single work. Our snippet fails to clarify why this relates to December 25; but the passage is actually introduced with these words:

Caeterum quod spectat ad Salvatoris Natale, ut celebrandum constituerint 25 Decembr., in hunc modum invenimus.

The other thing to consider for the nativity of the Saviour, as ordained that to be celebrated on 25 December, we discovered in this way.

Our snippet ended with “Then Julius the Roman carefully enquired into this question.  When he had collected all the writings of the Jews, which were captured and taken to Rome, he discovered a certain commentary of the time of the historian Josephus, written by himself: in which he said that, in the seventh month, on the feast of Scenopegia [or Tabernacles], on the day of expiation, the angel of the Lord appeared, and the dumb priest was restored, who had remained without voice until that time when his wife Elizabeth in old age gave birth.”

John then continues:

Well, according to the months of the Hebrews, the first month is Nesan.  This is numbered, and from that to the seventh month proceeds in this way: Nesan, Iar, Siban, Tamous, Aph, Eloul, Tesirin. This [Tesirin] is month 7, within which the annunciation of Zachariah happened; and 6 months are counted from Nesan, i.e. March, until the annunciation of the Mother of God; in this way, Mersan, Chasili, Tapet, Sipat, Atar, Nesan, which is 6 months from Mersan until Nesan, just as it was written, “In the sixth month was the archangel Gabriel sent to Mary”; and from the month of Nesan, in which was the annunciation, nine months are counted until the nativity of the Lord, in this way: Iar, Siban, Tamus, Aph, Eloul, Mersan, Tesirin, Chasili, Tapet.  Therefore the first lunary month Tesirin happens in the month of September: and from the conception of John to the annunciation of the God-bearer we count thus: October, Novemberm December, January, February, March.  There are equally 6 months.  But from the annunciation until the nativity are numbered thus: April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.  Again in month 7, on day 10 of the month, was the day of expiation; 15 however was the observance of the Scenopegia.  In that month Elizabeth conceived, on the 10th day of Tesirin, on the day of expiation, and the 23 September was the conception of John; but 4th Nesan, March 25 was the annunciation of the holy Mother of God Mary; and 5th Tamnis, 25 June, was the birthday of the Forerunner [=John], and however 9th Sapet, December 25 is the nativity of Christ our great God, and Word incarnate.  In this way did Julius Romanus the patriarch arrange the months of the Hebrews and the Romans: from which time the Roman church began with outbursts (?) of joy to celebrate the nativity of the Saviour on 25 December, and bequeathed the obligation to the whole church.

Jam ergo juxta menses Hebraeorum, primus mensium Nesan. Hic numeratur, atque ab eo ad 7 mensem proceditur, hoc modo : Nesan, Iar, Siban, Tamous, Aph, Eloul, Tesirin. Hic est mensis 7, in quo facta est annuntiatio Zachariae; ac numeratur usque ad Annuntiationem Dei Genitricis, mensis hic sextus Nesan, id est, Martius; in hunc modum, Mersan, Chasili, Tapet, Sipat, Atar, Nesan, qui est sextus mensis a Mersan usque ad Nesan, sicut scriptum est : In mense sexto missus est Gabriel archangelus ad Mariam; atque a mense Nesan, quo facta est Annuntiatio, numerantur menses novem, usque ad Domini Nativitatem, hoc modo: Iar, Siban, Tamus, Aph, Eloul, Mersan, Tesirin, Chasili, Tapet. Prima igitur luna mensis Tesirin, occurrit in mensem Septembrem: atque a Joannis conceptione usque ad Deiparae Annuntiationem sic numeramus: October, November, December, Januarius, Februarius, Martius. Fiunt simul sex menses. Ab Annuntiatione autem usque ad Nativitatem sic numerantur: Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Julius, Augustus, September, October, November, December. Porro, mense 7, die mensis 10, erat Expiationis dies; 15 autem erat solemnitas Scenopegiae. Ipso mense concepit Elisabeth, 10 die mensis Tesirim, in die Expiationis, fuitque 23 Septembris conceptio Joannis, quarta autem mensis Nesan, Martii 25 fuit Annuntiatio Dei Genitricis sanctae Mariae; quinta vero mensis Tamnis, 25 Junii, fuit Praecursoris nativitas; ac tandem 9 mensis Sapet, Decembris 25, Nativitas Christi magni Dei nostri, ac Verbi incarnati. Inque hunc modum Julius Romanus patriarcha menses Hebraeorum atque Romanorum composuit: a quo tempore, coepit Romana Ecclesia laetis gaudii celebrare Natalem Salvatoris diem 25 Decembris, tradiditque celebrandum universis Ecclesiis.

That makes more sense of the snippet given by John of Nicaea (about whom, as yet, I can find no information).  Both versions, then, give the story that Pope Julius I ordered that Christmas should be on 25 December.

UPDATE2: I had meant to look for the snippets in the Pinakes database of Greek manuscripts, but that work is not indexed.  John of Nicaea, or Johannes Nikenus, or Iohannes Nicaenus mtr., on the other hand, is indeed listed, as author 1501, together with his work De festo die natali Domini., which they number as work 2657.  Ten manuscripts are listed, from the 12th to the 17th century.

  1. [1]http://www.lnstar.com/mall/main-areas/xmas-not-first-choice.htm
  2. [2]https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/celebrate-christmas-but-when-and-how-11629663.html
  3. [3]https://thenewdaily.com.au/religion/2017/12/14/12-days-of-christmas-day-three/
  4. [4]Glen L. Thompson, The correspondence of Pope Julius I, CUA (2015).  The important pages are p.xlii, 200-201.  Google Books Preview here.
  5. [5]DCB says published by Combefis, Haeresis Monothelit., p.298 ff.
  6. [6]According to the DCB it was printed by Cotelier, Patres Apostolici, i.316 (1724).

When did Christmas Day become a public holiday?

In the legal code of Justinian, issued in 534 AD, we find the following entry, in book 3, title 12, law 6, Omnes dies:

3.12.6 (7). Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius to Albinus, City Prefect.  We order that all days shall be court days.

1.Only those days shall remain as days of vacation which each year, for a period of two months, indulgently gives to rest from labor, in order to mitigate the summer heat, and to gather the autumnal fruits.

2.  We also give over to leisure the usual days at the beginning of each year.

3. We add to these the natal days of the great cities of Rome and Constantinople, during which the legal proceedings, which own their origin to them, should be deferred. We also add the holy pascal days, seven preceding and seven succeeding Easter, also the natal day of Christ and the day of Epiphany and the time during which the suffering of the apostles, the teachers of all Christianity, is rightly commemorated; and these holy days shall not be open to shows.

4. Sundays, too, which the ancients rightly named the Lord’s days and which return at regular intervals, shall be put in this class.

5. An equal reverence shall be paid to the days which marked our birth and the beginning of our reign, and on these days no examination of disputes shall be made before referees, whether appointed by judges upon request or by the choice of the parties.

6. During the fifteen days of Easter, the exaction of all taxes in kind and of all public and private debts shall be deferred.

Given at Rome August 8 (389).  C. Th. 2.8.2.[1]

The law is copied from the Theodosian Code, and is apparently enacted in 389 under Valentinian.  Note that it is ordered that the Christian “holy days” do not have the games celebrated on them.

But comparison with the text of the Codex Theodosianus[2] shows that in fact Justinian, on reissuing it in 534 AD, has added some holidays; Christmas, Epiphany, and the festivals in commemoration of the apostles.  Sadly I don’t have the English translation in PDF, but the Latin can be followed easily enough.

CTh.2.8.19 [=brev.2.8.2]

Imppp. Valentinianus, Theodosius et Arcadius aaa. Albino pf. U. Omnes dies iubemus esse iuridicos. Illos tantum manere feriarum dies fas erit, quos geminis mensibus ad requiem laboris indulgentior annus accepit, aestivis fervoribus mitigandis et autumnis foetibus decerpendis.

1. Kalendarum quoque ianuariarum consuetos dies otio mancipamus.

2. His adiicimus natalitios dies urbium maximarum, Romae atque Constantinopolis, quibus debent iura deferre, quia et ab ipsis nata sunt.

3. Sacros quoque paschae dies, qui septeno vel praecedunt numero vel sequuntur, in eadem observatione numeramus, nec non et dies solis, qui repetito in se calculo revolvuntur.

4. Parem necesse est haberi reverentiam nostris etiam diebus, qui vel lucis auspicia vel ortus imperii protulerunt. Dat. vii. id. aug. Roma, Timasio et Promoto coss.

While the sacred days of Easter (Sacros paschae dies) plus seven days before and after are part of the Codex Theodosianus, the words “also the natal day of Christ” onwards were added later than the Theodosian code, itself published in 438 AD.

This interesting snippet came to me via a very old volume, E. V. Neale’s Feasts and Fasts from 1845, p.23.[3]

So it looks as if we may reasonably attribute the creation of Christmas as a public holiday, rather than merely a church festival, to Justinian.

  1. [1]Translation by F.H.Blume, via the Annotated Justinian Website, 2005.
  2. [2]Online in Latin here.
  3. [3]Online here.

Two Pannonian monuments connecting Mithras with 25 Dec.?

The Hungarian scholar Istvan Toth died this year.  I learn this from his page at Academia.edu, where may be found all his papers and books in electronic form.  This is no small thing, for many are quite inaccessible in the west, even in major research libraries.  Well done, Dr Toth, for making all this mass of information available.

Among the papers one caught my eye: 2004 Mithras kultusz és a Karácsony Poetovioban = Cult of Mithras and the Christmas in Poetovio.  This paper is in Hungarian, but very sensibly provided with an English translation at the back.  The translation is imperfect, but this is of small importance; the point is that the article is readable by the world.

We all know that Franz Cumont, in his rather slack way, supposed that there was a festival of Mithras on 25 Dec., by presuming that the cultists of Mithras ‘must’ have participated in the Natalis Solis Invicti, attested only after 354 AD.  No evidence of this exists, of course.  But this carelessness has created a modern myth, often expressed in the unpleasant jeer “Mithras is the reason for the season.”

So what does Toth say? (I shall correct the English, for readability)

It is a fact that, although scholarship connected the festival of natalis Invicti with one of Mithras (too) since F. Cumont(2), until now there was nothing to show this from epigraphical evidence collected for the Cult of Mithras (3). This situation changed because of the epigraph from Poetovio which was found in 1970, and this epigraphical evidence has since been published in several publications (4).

The epigraphical evidence was found at Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia) in the immediate vicinity of so-called Mithraeum IV (5), at the same place as the other epigraphical evidence listed for this sanctuary (6). The lead prong, on the top face of the undecorated marble base (7), shows that the object was originally the pedestal of a statue, probably a statue of a figure being born out of a rock. The first line of the inscription is lost. The remaining lines of the text are as follows:

[— ] | M Gong(ius) | Aquilei|ensis pro | salute | sua suor|umq(ue) om|nium v(otum)
s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) | d(e)d(icavit) VIIII K(alendas) Ian(uarias) | p(osuit) p(ater)
p(ientissimus) Florentiu[s]

The damaged first line, according to J. Sasel, should be read: [D(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae)] accounting this: “verisimiliter colligendum est, cum in vicinia vestigia quarti Mithraei reperta sint”(8), and this is all respects acceptable.

Unquestionably the most important element of the inscription is the date on the 9th readable line: 24th December, that is, vigil of natalis Invicti (the “Christmas Eve”), which appears here for the first time in epigraphical evidence related to the cult of Mithras.

The dating of relic can fairly certainly be given as the first half of the third century A.D., possibly about the middle of the third century. J. Sasel pointed that another bearer of this nomen was a certain Gongius Nestorianus who, between 198-211 was procurator of publicum portorium Illyrici and resided in Poetovio; then between 213-217 he was a praefectus classis Ravennatis(9). Considering that the nomen gentilicum of Gongius may be unique(10), it seems very likely that the person who dedicated the inscribed monument under discussion had some relationship to this man of high standing, for example he was his libertus.(11)

All this is interesting; but why a dedication of a monument on what is now 24 Dec. ‘must’ be connected to what is today Christmas Eve is not made clear.  The fact that, in 354 AD, there would be a festival of the sun on the following day is not necessarily relevant.  Any monument must be dedicated on some date; what the inscription does not show is that the date here was in any way significant.

The article then continues with material of no great relevance, until we reach this section:

It is absolutely certain, that every class of society was imbued with the need to have knowledge of the ceremonies and articles of the cult of Mithras. That social stratum was the one from which was descended Victorinus, the martyred bishop of Poetovio, the first exegete who wrote in Latin (22). However Victorinus of Poetovio – who was executed at the latest in the time of the great persecution of Christians under the reign of Diocletian – in the 260s would have been already adult, and meditating on religious matters as a young man.

The theological interest of Victorinus was exceptionally wide-ranging. He examined besides his exegesis, works on heterodoxies, the origin of world, apocalyptical doctrines(23) and there remains a fragment of his chronological work too(24). In this fragment he concluded the following inferences referring to document of a certain Alexander of Jerusalem: “VIII. Kal Ian. natus est Dominus noster Iesus Christus… etc.” (That is Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December) – The latest research places the origin of this fragment in the years after 260 (25).

Amongst the monuments of Mithras of Poetovio there are presented in remarkably great strength of those, that which relating to the birth of the god. … One of the representative stone monuments (30) of the Mithraeum founded by Flavius Aper and his officers represented the figure of Mithras being born out from a rock: in the background of the scene appears the figure of Saturn, wreathed by Victoria; to all intents and purposes showing, that in dedication named of god to D(eus) S(ol) i(nvictus) M(ithras) was born on 25 December, and the birth of god means that beginning of the new epoch of world.

We expect so: if we are not mistaken, that in this chronological fragment of Victorinus of Poetovio, indicating the date of natalis Invicti, we can recognise the inner history of the reference to the birth of Jesus and we recognize the events from the history of religion in the native town of the martyred bishop, which happened in his youth, and in our opinion that the Christian exegetist who wrote in Latin earliest and in all probability he was among the first (31) who connected the one of the central ideas of cult of Mithras of Poetovio with the articles of Christian faith.

I think something may have dropped out of the argument here.  For it is quite unclear to me just why the presence of Saturn in a Mithraic monument of the rock birth must connect the monument to 25 Dec. – Saturnalia, after all, finished on 23rd Dec.  Otherwise a monument of the rock birth is just nothing.

The material about Victorinus is likewise very loosely argued (allowing, always, for the translation difficulties).

It all falls apart, once you look closely, sadly.

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the workhouse…

It is now Christmas Eve.  A minority of people will be sat at home, in a traditional Dickensian family circle, waiting for Christmas.  In rather more households there will be excited children rushing around, and all blessing to them and their harried parents.

But for a great many people, including most people who spend their lives online, this evening will be spent on their own, as will tomorrow and many more days.  We need not be surprised.  In our age this is normal.  Let us never regret that we do not enjoy the kind of Christmas that the TV advertisers tell us that we all should.  The reality of this world in these days is that a great number of people will be on their own.

It is traditional for bloggers to wish their readers a happy Christmas, and I shall not omit this courtesy.  I wish everyone reading these words a merry Christmas, and every blessing.

I include in these words those who I count as my friends, and those who have worked with me during the year.

I include in these words those who have written to me, those who have encouraged me, those who have shared in this work of education and learning.

I include everyone who intends to do good to his fellow man; and I include those who are simply trying to get by.

I include those who disagree with me.  I hope that disagreement may be generous, at least on our own side.

I also include, this Christmas time, one poor unhappy soul far away.  I don’t know his name, for he has taken pains to be anonymous.  I include him because I believe that this poor soul has little to enjoy at Christmas, and is an unhappy man.  I infer this because last year he had nothing better to do on Christmas day, the best of days, than to go online and attempt to cause me an injury.  Pathetically, he failed, in that I did not even learn of his deed until months later, and didn’t care even then.  I suspect that he reads this blog occasionally.  If so, I wish him a happy Christmas, and a prosperous New Year.

This Christmas I will be blogging away, and will try to provide something for people to read.  I’m still busy with the Mithras pages, which are beginning to assume a form which is not altogether horrible.  I hope to have a couple of Hymns by St. Ephraim the Syrian, newly translated into English, for you tomorrow.

Merry Christmas to you all!

More on the “birth of the sun” at Chronicon blog

Tom Schmidt is still excerpting material from ancient sources on this mysterious “birth of the sun” on 25 Dec.  And he’s translating some untranslated material himself!  He’s got a bit from Hephaistio of Thebes on Antiochus of Athens.  Read it here.