In AD 932 the most powerful ruler in Britain spent Christmas on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Never before had a unitary kingdom been fashioned out of all the various realms of the Angles and the Saxons. Never before had all the other kings of the island, from the northernmost reaches of Scotland to the mountains of Wales, been compelled to acknowledge the overlordship of a single man.
That December, taking the road that led through the West Saxon heartlands of his kingdom, and arriving with his court in the fortified settlement of Amesbury, Athelstan could be well satisfied with the scope of his power. Across the Channel, in the lands of the Franks, it had long been the custom of emperors to sit in state at Christmas, publicly wearing a crown. Athelstan, a king who had won for himself his own imperial dignity, was the first of his dynasty to do the same. His greatness made for a dazzling show. There was feasting, drinking, gift-giving. Sat on his throne, wearing his diadem, the King of the English bestowed largesse. On Christmas Eve he made generous grants of land. One was to an abbey, another to a lord named Alfred. Such munificence was widely seen as appropriate to the season. The radiance of the king’s hospitality blazed all the more brilliantly for the cold and darkness all around.
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Athelstan did not know it, but the festivities he presided over at Amesbury that Christmas of 932 had a pedigree that reached back millennia. Beyond the light that spilled and flickered out through the doorways of his hall there lay a pool of water. Fed by a warm spring, the waters of this pool — which today we call Blick Mead — never freeze. Back in an age unimaginable to even the greatest scholar at Athelstan’s court, 8,000 years before the birth of Christ, it was discovered by nomads moving northwards in the wake of retreating ice sheets. The constant warmth of the spring, even amid snow and ice, doubtless served to endow it, in the minds of those who found it, with an eerily sacral quality.
Certainly, the site seems to have become a significant one for the people of Mesolithic Wiltshire. Thousands of animal bones have been found there. Since the majority of these are from aurochs, a breed of wild cattle so enormous that a single carcass would have served to feed 200 people, it seems likely that Blick Mead was a great feasting place. Perhaps, as at Athelstan’s court millennia later, these feasts were staged when the days were at their shortest. What gods the people of Blick Mead might have worshipped, and what patterns they might have tracked in the turning of the seasons, we cannot know for certain. Even so, it does not seem unreasonable to imagine them craving in the dead of winter what Athelstan too, when he came to Amesbury, made sure to provide for his court: heat amid the cold, light amid the darkness.
Another monument provides more solid evidence for just how enduring this tradition was on Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge, which stands two miles from Amesbury, is famously aligned to the movements of the sun. Although the stones that would have framed sunset on the shortest day of the year are gone, the bones of pigs and cattle slaughtered around the same time, and left discarded at the nearby settlement of Durrington Wells, suggest that the winter solstice was indeed, for the builders of Stonehenge, a time of feasting. Again, of course, no one at Athelstan’s court would have had any notion of this. The standing stones that dotted the landscape of Britain were generally assumed to be the work of giants. This did not mean, however, that the memory of every pagan god worshipped in the depths of midwinter had been lost to oblivion.
The influence of Rome on Athelstan’s emergent empire was a strong one. It was manifest in the crown he wore, in the Latin used to write his charters, and in the name given to one of the seven days of the week. Sæternesdæg — Saturday — was not, as the other days of the Old English week were, named after a heavenly body or one of the gods once worshipped by Athelstan’s ancestors. Instead, it commemorated a god who, so the Romans believed, had reigned over a golden age, and whose festival on 17 December was praised by poets as “the best of days”. The entire week that followed it might be given over to merry-making. People would gamble and hand out gifts; masters serve their slaves; lords of misrule be appointed to preside over the festivities. Saturnalia, this celebration was called: the feast of Saturn.
It might seem fitting, then, that the festival we call Christmas — Cristes Maessan, as it came to be known in the 11th century — would have been described by Athelstan and his courtiers simply as Midne Winter: Midwinter. They knew perfectly well that pagans in the benighted times before the coming of Christ had marked the darkest time of the year, just as they did, with great celebrations. Bede, a scholar who had lived two centuries previously, and whose works were much valued by Athelstan and his dynasty, recorded that prior to the conversion of the Angles and Saxons their most important annual festival had been held on 24 December. Whether or not this information was accurate, it caused Bede himself no concern or perplexity. To note the echoes of pagan practise in the Christian year signalled, not a surrender to relativism, but its rout.
Bede, more clearly than any Christian scholar before him, had recognised that there was only the one fixed point amid the great sweep of the aeons, only the single pivot. Drawing on calendrical tables compiled some two centuries earlier, he had fixed on the Incarnation, the entry of the divine into the womb of the Virgin Mary, as the moment on which all of history turned. Years, by Bede’s reckoning, were properly measured according to whether they were before Christ or anno Domini: in the year of the Lord. The effect was to render the calendar itself as Christian. The great drama of Christ’s incarnation and birth stood at the very centre of both the turning of the year and the passage of the millennia. The fact that pagans too had staged midwinter festivities presented no threat to this conceptualisation, but quite the opposite. Dimly, inadequately, gropingly, they had anticipated the supreme miracle: the coming into darkness of the true Light, by which every man who comes into the world is lit.
In time, however, there were Christians who found themselves doubting this. “A perpetual forge of idols.” So Calvin described the human mind. This conviction, that fallen mortals were forever susceptible to turning their backs on God, to polluting the pure radiance to his commands, to practising in his very sanctuary pagan rituals, was a dread that constantly shadowed Calvin’s more committed followers in England. To Puritans, as they were called, the riotous celebrations that accompanied Christmas appeared a particular abomination.
It made the festival seem, as one of them disapprovingly noted, “some Heathen Feast of Ceres or Bacchus.” This anxiety fused over time with another deeply-held Protestant conviction: that papists, in their cunning and their deviancy, had been altogether too ready to compromise with the legacies of idolatry. Rather than clear away the brambles and nettles of paganism, they had instead tended them, and encouraged them to grow. What, then, was all the revelling, and dicing, and feasting that marked the celebration of the Saviour’s birth, all the “Licencious Liberty,” if not the Saturnalia by another name?
Today, the doubts about Christmas originally articulated by Puritan divines continue to flourish — as does so much Protestant anti-popery — in polemics that target not merely Catholicism but the Christian Church tout court. “Nothing in Christianity is original.” So opined the distinguished symbologist Sir Leigh Teabing. “The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25…” Dan Brown’s take is one well suited to a capitalist age. The Da Vinci Code, by portraying the early Church as an institution that had knowingly and cynically appropriated the feastdays of other gods, was able to cast Christians as predatory monopolists, asset-stripping the cults of their rivals.
Part of the reason for Dan Brown’s astonishing success is clearly that he was telling lots of people what they were ready to hear. That Christmas is a fraud, a festival stolen by the Church from pagans, has become a staple of many an atheist meme. Fuelling this trend is the fact that backing for it is to be found in distinguished works of history as well as in thrillers. “The Church was anxious to draw the attention of its members away from the old pagan feast days, and the December date did this very well, for it coincided with the ‘birthday of the invincible Sun’ of Mithraism, and the end of the Roman Saturnalia (December 24).” So writes John North in his book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos.
Similarly, in his seminal study of the ritual year in Britain, Stations of the Sun, the great historian of paganism Ronald Hutton quotes a Christian writer whom he names “the Scriptor Syrus”, and dates to “the late fourth century”. This Scriptor Syrus — in the passage cited by Hutton — notes both that the birthday of the Sun was celebrated on 25 December, and that Christians as well as pagans took part in the celebrations. “Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.” The case would seem open and shut.
But is it? In reality, the notion that Christmas is a festival stolen from pagans is quite as much a compound of confusions and inaccuracies as anything believed about the feast day by Christians themselves. There is no evidence — absolutely none — that the birth of Mithras was celebrated on 25 December. The confusion seems to have arisen because Mithras had Sol Invictus, “Unconquered Sun,” as one of his titles, and — according to an ambiguous entry in a mid-4th century almanac — the birthday of a quite different god called Sol Invictus may have been celebrated on the same date. What, though, of the evidence provided by the Scriptor Syrus? This, too, is not what it is widely assumed to be.
Far from providing contemporaneous evidence for the Christian appropriation of the Sun’s birthday, “Syrus” was in reality an anonymous medieval scribe who, back in the 12th century, had annotated a manuscript by a local bishop. “Scriptor Syrus” — literally, “Syrian writer” — was the name given to him in a 19th century edition of this manuscript. The passage quoted by Hutton was not, as has been widely assumed, a reference to the origins of Christmas. Rather, Syrus was trying to explain why Christians in Rome celebrated the birth of Christ on a different date to Christians in the eastern half of the Mediterranean — a date which the scribe himself, unsurprisingly, took for granted was the accurate one. Such, refracted by a process of Chinese whispers, is the origin of the claim so confidently asserted by Sir Leigh Teabing that nothing about Christmas is original. One more winter solstice myth, in short, to add to all the others.
Why, then, did Christians in the West come to celebrate Christmas on 25 December? The answer seems to lie, not in paganism, but — as one might expect — in the great seedbed of Jewish tradition. Rabbis and Church Fathers in the early centuries of the Christian century shared a conviction that the great events of creation and salvation were framed by an essential symmetry. Jewish scholars, tracing this symmetry, could argue that both the creation of the world and the birth of Abraham and his immediate heirs had occurred on the same day of the year that Israel was destined to obtain redemption.
Christian scholars, drawing on similar traditions, came to believe that Jesus had died on the anniversary of his incarnation. And the date of that anniversary? First in Carthage, and then in Rome, it came to be identified with what, according to the Roman calendar, was 25 March. Then, once that particular date had bedded down — and operating on the assumption that Christ had been born nine months after his conception — it required only a simple calculation to arrive at the date of his birth. By the 4th century, 25 December was coming to be enshrined across the western half of the empire as the anniversary of Christ’s birth.
By 597, when missionaries from Rome arrived in Kent to attempt the conversion of the pagan Angles and Saxons, it had become an irrevocable part of the calendar of the Latin Church. As Bede, a hundred years later and more, would teach his countrymen, the rhythms of time were not random, but structured by the purposes of God. The birthday of Christ was joined by a fateful and divinely-ordained patterning to the day of his death. Athelstan, celebrating Christmas at Amesbury, would have known, contemplating the birth of his Saviour, to remember as well His death.
Doubtless that is why, in the charter the king issued on Christmas Eve to Shaftesbury Abbey, he specified that the monks should hold him in their prayers, and sing fifty psalms daily for the repose of his soul. Yet it is evident as well that Athelstan, celebrating the Christmas season in Amesbury that December of 932, had not neglected to ponder the precise details of his Saviour’s birth. When making grants of land, he did not forget the poor and those without shelter. In a second charter issued that Christmas Eve, he imposed on its recipient, the lord Alfred, a legal obligation to provide daily for 120 of the destitute.
Other charters with similar stipulations followed in a steady succession. Athelstan’s determination that no one living on his own lands be permitted to starve saw him issue a particularly prescriptive ordinance. The officials responsible for his estates were warned by their royal master that fines would be levied on those who failed in their duty to the needy, and the proceeds donated to charity. “My wish it is that you should always provide the destitute with food.”
At the Saturnalia, when, for a few brief days, hierarchies might be upended and all was joyous misrule, did those who celebrated it issue similar ordinances? It seems unlikely. The golden age of Saturn lay far in the past. To resurrect it for a few fleeting days implied no moral obligations. Even as masters waited on slaves, no broader subversion was threatened. The first were still first, and the last were still last. Athelstan, however, could enjoy no such assurance. Sat on his throne that Christmas season in Amesbury, crowned with his diadem, he knew how unsettling for the wealthy and the mighty were all the implications of his Saviour’s birth in a stable.
The subversion of it was not something that could be framed safely within the limits of a festival. The implications reached out across time and space. The divine had become flesh. The Son of God had descended to earth and been born amid straw and the stench of the barnyard. The mystery of it was at once beyond the comprehension of even the greatest scholars, and a cause of wonder that even the least educated could feel. To a king it served as a summons to remember the needy, the homeless, the poor. And so Athelstan, conscious that in time he would be called to answer for himself before the throne of his Maker, did his best to keep them in his mind, and to care for them.
The foundational story of Christmas, that of the birth of the Son of God amid poverty and danger, gives to the festival its own very particular flavour. The feasting, the gifts, the brief liberation from their sufferings of those ground down by poverty, or oppression or war: all, in the case of Christmas, are endowed with a very culturally distinctive resonance. It is a resonance that derives, not from timeless and universal archetypes, but rather from a specifically Christian narrative. All the other myths and narratives that, over the course of the centuries, have become a part of the festive fabric, from Santa Claus to Scrooge, from football matches in no mans land to the Grinch, endure because they go with its grain.
This year of all years — with a clarity denied us in happier times — it is possible to recognise in Christmas its fundamentally Christian character. The light shining in the darkness proclaimed by the festival is a very theological light, one that promises redemption from the miseries of a fallen world. In a time of pandemic, when the festive season is haunted by the shadows of sickness and bereavement, of loneliness and disappointment, of poverty and dread, the power of this theology, one that has fuelled the celebration of Christmas for century after century, becomes easier, perhaps, to recognise than in a time of prosperity. The similarities shared by the feast day of Christ’s birth with other celebrations that, over the course of history, have been held in the dead of winter should not delude us into denying a truth so evident as to verge on the tautologous: Christmas is a thoroughly Christian festival.