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:

 N·INVICTI·CM·XXX

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.

Legends about what the Chronicon Pascale says

After Eusebius invented the idea of the “Chronicle of World History”, subsequent writers produced considerable numbers of these.  As a rule these start with Adam, using the Bible and Eusebius to cover stuff up to Constantine, and then whatever continuations and paraphrases were available.

The Chronicon Pascale is an example of this genre.  It’s a Greek World Chronicle, composed around 630 AD in the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius, just half a dozen years before the Arabs charge out of the desert and find no-one in any shape to resist them.  No translation of the whole thing exists, apart from the renaissance Latin version printed in the Patrologia Graeca 92.  Whitby and Whitby made an English translation of the portion from 284 AD onwards.

Bill Thayer of Lacus Curtius forwarded me an email in which someone raised an interesting query:

…in “The Story of Religious Controversy”, a book written in 1929 by Joseph McCabe. In the chapter entitled “Morals in Ancient Egypt,” he is speaking of the son of the goddess Isis–Horus–and says: “An early Christian work, the ‘Paschal Chronicle’ (Migne ed. xcii. col 385), tells us that every year the temples of Horus presented to worshippers, in mid-winter (or about December 25th), a scenic model of the birth of Horus. He was represented as a babe born in a stable, his mother Isis standing by.”

I hope we all know better than to believe the crude falsehoods about Christian origins circulated by bitter atheists online.  But does the CP say any such thing?  I went off to look.

Skimming over the Latin side , I find a discussion of Jeremiah’s prediction of Christ, starting in col. 383, “De Jeremia”.  This starts with one of the messianic passages, mirrored in Matthew – which he quotes – and then says is also in Hebrews.  Then he goes on (my own rough translation of key points):

“Jeremiah was from Anathoth, and was killed in Taphais in Egypt by being stoned by the people, and sleeps in the place where Pharaoh’s palace is, (..because he was very respected..) because when they were infested with the aquatic animals, called Menephoth in Egyptian and crocodiles in Greek. Even today those faithful to God who take some of the dust of that place can drive crocodiles away”

One may hope that no-one actually experimented with live crocodiles to verify this.

Then follows a story that Alexander, when he came to Egypt, and heard about the “arcana” which he had predicted, removed the prophet’s relics to Alexandria, for some other similar magic which I can’t quite make out.  It then continues:

“This sign Jeremiah gave to the priests of Aegypt, predicting the future, that their idols would be destroyed and ? by a boy saviour born of a virgin, and laid in a manger.” 

It goes on:

“Quapropter etiamvero ut deam colunt virginem puerperam, et infantem in praesepi adorant.

For which reason (?) they honour a pregnant virgin goddess and worship an infant in a manger.

When king Ptolemy asked why, they told him that they received this secret from the holy prophet handed down by their fathers. The same prophet Jeremiah, before the destruction of the temple, …”  (more stuff about prophecy).

Migne quotes a note by DuCange (25) which says that this bit about a virgin comes from Epiphanius and Simon Logothetes (who?).  No reference is given, unfortunately, and I was unable to find it in the Panarion.

This last bit is probably the kernel of the story that we see in highly embroidered form above.