Classics and pop culture / History

Have yourself a Roman little Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The time when classicists all over the world, after one two many glasses of holiday libation and desperate to prove that they’re really just as important as their cousin who makes six figures as a hedge fund manager thank you very much, grab the ears of unwilling members of the general public and ask them ‘did you know the Romans invented Christmas?’ As holiday traditions go, this is as ubiquitous for classicists as watching Donald Duck is for Scandinavians (and its appeal is presumably just as inexplicable to the uninitiated).

Kalle_Anka_och_hans_vänner_önskar_god_jul_2009The holiday traditions of others are always inexplicable

Far be it from me to question venerable holiday traditions, but I’m unconvinced by the ‘Christmas is  Saturnalia’ schtick. For one thing, there is a problem with the dates, as illustrated by that preeminent online journal For another thing, most of the similarities between the two can be summarized by saying that ‘people get drunk and do silly things’. So, in other words, they were both parties.

There is, however, a much more striking Roman parallel for Christmas, for which we must turn to my old friend Furius Dionysius Filocalus, surely one of the most famous calligraphers in history. In the middle of the fourth century, Filocalus was hard at work on his calendar. On the 25th day of December, he commemorated the feast of a deity who was increasingly honoured by Romans: Sol Invictus or the Unconquered Sun.

06_decemberIllustration of the Month of December from the Calendar of Filocalus (The Barberini ms, a 17th century copy of a Carolingian copy of the original)

Sol Invictus was a tremendously popular deity in the later Roman Empire, despite being rather a parvenu as gods went (his cult was made official by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274). He was, amongst other things, the patronal deity of Constantine the Great before his conversion to Christianity, and even afterward. Sol and Christ could easily be assimilated, although Constantine’s Christian biographers and apologists Lactantius and Eusebius were hostile to such syncretism, but the idea of Christ as the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ (as in ‘Hark! the herald angel) has never quite died out. The idea of the Christ being born around the time when days begin to grow longer again would have an obvious appeal.

Educated Roman Christians were aware of the extent to which they borrowed from pagan precedents and, although they did experience some ‘anxiety of influence’, they were largely happy to view pagan precedents as examples of how divine providence stretched backward in time as well as forward, so that even Vergil’s Ecologues could be seen as predicting the birth of Christ. For Christians such as Melito, a Bishop of Sardis in the second century, it was no coincidence that Christ should have been born during the reign of Augustus: as Augustus restored glory to Rome, so Christ redeemed the world.

The liturgical proclamation of Christmas, read by members of Catholic religious orders, still to this day uses classical dating to establish the Roman, as well as the Jewish, context of the Nativity.

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,

unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth and then formed man and woman in his own image.

Several thousand years after the flood, when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;

thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;

one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;

in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;

the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,

[ in the sixth age of the world,]

Jesus Christ the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary,
being made flesh.

Roman Christmas Carols?

The concept of a Christmas carol as a distinct type of song is a fairly modern one, dating from the later half of the 19th century. The apparently timeless form practiced at King’s College here in Cambridge is more recent still: the first service of Nine Lessons and Carols was held in 1918, and the arrangements of most of the congregational carols were written in in the mid 20th century by Sir David Willcocks. The words of some popular carols are a bit older, but only one is truly classical: Corde natus ex parentis’ is an excerpt from a much longer poem by the Roman poet, who lived in the late fourth century. A translation of it as ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’, by the Cambridge Classicist and Anglo-Catholic priest John Mason Neale, was included in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861, and is still occasionally sung. A second translation (Of the Father’s heart begotten’), by Rob Davis (also a Cambridge classicist, as it happens), was included in the original English Hymnal in 1906, and it’s this version that is most familiar to choirs in England.

Prudentius’ poem is highly mystical and rather impersonal in its language, to the point where Jesus is never mentioned by name (‘the boy’ is about as close as it gets). Paired with a Mediaeval plainchant tune, this appealed to Victorian and Edwardian Anglo-Catholics, who were busy creating a tradition of hymnody distinct from the more personal and emotive traditions of Watts and Wesley, and one which could link them to a romantically imagined ancient church.

It’s fair to say that ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ doesn’t get a lot of radio play and probably isn’t the first thing most people think of when asked to name a Christmas song, but it enjoys relative popularity as a hymn in churches, where it is one of the oldest hymns in use, even if that use was far from continuous. Despite the Mediaeval tune and the somewhat romantic translation, this is the most authentically Roman thing in common use at Christmas time in the 21st century.

In addition to this one genuinely classical carol, we might look at one faux classical carol, ‘Adeste Fideles’ or ‘O Come all ye faithful’, the Latin text of which was first published by John Francis Wade in the late 18th century. The English translation we’re most familiar with today was written in 1841 by Frederick Oakeley, an Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism. It notably contains what seems to a bizarre mistranslation. The second line of the second verse in Latin reads ‘Gestant puellæ viscera’ (‘A virgin’s womb gives birth’), which Oakley translated as ‘Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb’. By any standard, this is a bizarre way of rendering the sentiment.

However, Oakley’s English is a reasonable paraphrase of another Latin hymn: ‘Te Deum Laudamus’, written in the fourth century (traditionally, if implausibly, in the year 383 by Ambrose and Augustine on the day of the latter’s baptism). In the Te Deum, the birth of Jesus is referred to in the couplet: ‘Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,/ non horruisti Virginis uterum’ (when thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb’).

Why Oakley saw fit to interpolate a line from one hymn into another is a mystery. Perhaps he thought that the neo-Latin hymn would benefit from a reference to a more ancient text with illustrious authors. Even modern Christmas carols could be made to seem Roman.

Did the Romans invent Christmas? Well, not exactly, but modern Christmas has several links, both real and imagined, to ancient Rome.


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