Tag Archives: Easter

Stolen Holidays.

Yule Thieves.

Christmas is a funny thing; it is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the son of the Christian god, but in reality, for most people, it is an orgy of consumerism and gluttony, which aren’t very Christian concepts. But neither is Christmas. It is, in effect, a pagan winter festival that has had Christian decorations draped upon it; a polytheist tree wrapped in monotheist tinsel. Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the first Christians, or even the second ones; not until the 4th century do we find records of the adherents of this peculiar new Jewish cult regarding the birth of their Messiah as something worth celebrating. Indeed many Christians thought that celebrating one’s birthday was a barbarous thing, particularly Origen, one of the most influential Christian theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But the time of year was already a cause for celebration before the posthumous popularity of a certain Galilean. The Romans, and many of the folk they conquered, celebrated ‘Saturnalia’ in the depths of winter, a festival of lights and feasting, where houses were covered in green-leaved branches, people were allowed time off work, and bonfires were lit. Sound familiar? Or what about the Northern Europe winter festival called Yule (or Jul), where houses were adorned with candles, animals were slaughtered, great feasts were organised, and vast quantities of beer was drunk? Jealous (possibly) of all this good clean pagan fun, the Christians jumped on the idea, and hijacked it for their own purposes.

Do you know When Jesus was born? Answers on a Postcard, Addressed to “The Pope, The Vatican, Italy”.

The Bible has very little to say about the birth of Christ; only two of the Gospels even bother give an account of that oh so special event, and they provide very little detail, and even then they don’t agree on what actually transpired (if it did), except, of course, for the crucial headline event. The best part about Jesus’ birthday is that no-one knows when it really is; nothing in the Bible even hints at when it could be, which, for a work of revelation and prophecy, is a bit ironic. Before the 4th century, the different Christian factions believed Christ to have been born in March, April, or May. And even then, the year is wrong, all thanks to a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who couldn’t do his math very well; Jesus was born sometime between 6 and  4 Before Himself, not on Year 1.

One Festival to Rule Them All…

In the West, the first mention of Jesus’ birthday is in the mid-4th century in a Roman calendar of sorts, and it declares it to be the 25th of December, a date that was soon adopted throughout the Roman Empire. Which may appear to be a bit random, since Eastern Christians seemed to prefer the idea of a spring or summer birthday. Interestingly, the 25th of December was already commemorated by many pagan Romans, such as that most crucial of Christian Emperors, Constantine, as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun-god (where’s a Catholic priest with no understanding of history or linguistics when you need one?).  It also happens to be around the time of the winter solstice, a time venerated in many other non-Christian religions. To co-opt one was to co-opt them all. It’s only a theory, but it seems quite reasonable to suggest that Christmas was invented to appeal to Roman pagans in particular, since they ran the world in those days, and they already had a long tradition of celebration around the 25th of December. Of course theology was later tacked on, the lengthening of the days is symbolic of the light of Christ and such, but the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Messiah has always lived in the shadow of what Christmas is really about; having a good time with friends during the darkest period of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), drinking and eating, and having a party.

Bring out Your Dead.

The Christians also swiped Hallowe’en from those rascally pagans, who had a thing for equinoxes and solstices. The early Christians seem to have been equally fond of plastering their notions over pre-existing conditions, and Hallowe’en is no different. This was, and continues to be, an essentially pagan, and particularly ‘Celtic’ (not in the sense of an ethnic group, but as a linguistic family which may have shared cultural practices) celebration, probably called something akin to Samhain (‘Sow-an’ not ‘Sam-hain’ as a certain American supernatural TV series claimed), which Christians sneakily sidled up to with ‘All Saints’ Day’, followed swiftly by ‘All Souls’ Day’ and all of a sudden it’s a harmless party-time for children, drunk students, and immature adults (don’t get me wrong, certain aspects of maturity are over-rated).

Bye-bye, mister Nazarene pie.

The one major celebration the Christians didn’t steal from the pagans was Easter (just when you think you have them figured out, they go and change their game to keep you guessing). No, they stole it from the Jews, though, in fairness, the Christ-lovers do have a legitimate claim on it. Unlike his birthday, we have a better idea of when Jesus was killed, because he had become important enough to take notice of by then. He (if he existed, and I reckon he may well have, but without the magic tricks) was crucified sometime in the month of Nisan, possibly on Friday the 15th, at the beginning of, or during, Passover. Which you might think is a good deal of detail, except Jewish months move. Unlike the Roman/Gregorian/Modern calendar, which is solar, the Jewish one is lunar, so the months are not always in the same place every year. The 15th of Nisan provided the early Christians with a bit of an issue; the date of Christ’s execution wandered around a bit. Theologically, some preferred the Paschal celebration to come after the vernal equinox, the world was ‘brighter’ after the death of the Galilean, and others didn’t care, believing that they should celebrate the event on the correct date, even if it happened to fall on the wrong side of the equinox. Of course the pagans also celebrated the vernal equinox as a time of rebirth and renewal, a happy coincidence with the Christian message. The Christians didn’t steal Easter, and, to a certain degree, pagans seem to have successfully inserted their notions into the Paschal celebrations; the term ‘Easter’ comes from a pagan goddess, and bunnies, eggs, and chocolate have very little to do with the vicious scourging of a Jewish reformist.

What have we learned, then? Ignore religion and enjoy the party; life doesn’t last very long, and then you are dead.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

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The Fear of God.

Fear and Trembling.

Most historical events are often explained as being politically, economically, and even sexually motivated rather than resorting to divine intervention, as that is hard to prove, since it never happens. Sometimes though, the fear of god is a very real thing, even if god isn’t, and can lend an interesting twist on events. The fear of god, an anxiety in the minds of people over a belief of a delusion of everlasting punishment, can lead to very real consequences, one of which may have been a turning point in the history of the British Isles.

Pistols at Dawn.

Late 7th century Britain and Ireland were home to an interesting dispute, one which has been described as a more spiritual and all round groovy ‘Celtic’ Christianity in conflict with the evil and domineering Roman Christianity. To begin, there was no Celtic Church. The Insular practices were good and catholic, doctrinally speaking, but the organisational structure was somewhat different, and its adherents also had a different way of calculating Easter, but so did everyone in those days. There were several versions of calculating  Easter making the rounds since the 4th century, or earlier, due to the vague dating of the death of a certain carpenter. Sometimes the variance between the Insular calendar and the Victorian or Dionysian calendars was not unbearable, but every once in a while there was a considerable difference. This bubbling conflict was all brought to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The synod found in favour of Rome, which led to the decline of the Insular practices.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England.

Image via Wikipedia

The Breath of God. Only the penitent man will pass.

One of the major contributing factors to the final decision was the influence of Oswiu, king of Northumbria. Northumbria had been converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries, and so followed the Insular practices. One of the more fun reasons put forward for the king’s switching of sides is that he had completed his ritual penance and wanted to perform his manly duties with his lady wife, but could not as she followed the Roman way of doing things, and so was still being pure and chaste for Lent.  There may also have been more nefarious reasons behind the change; one of Oswiu’s sons, Alhfrith, had an eye on the crown, which, since Oswiu was still alive, he could only get his hands on by removing it from his father’s head, which would have probably necessitated the removal of his father’s head from his shoulders. Alhfrith may have been supported by the Roman faction, and he mysteriously disappeared after the synod. So, our first option is that  a randy king decided the fate of the synod, and ultimately the fate of the souls of all the inhabitants of the archipelago. Our second option is that royal backstabbing and familial murder resolved the conflict between the Churches…

Solar Eclipse 1 (26 jan 2009)

Image by a_seph via Flickr

The Word of God. Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.

There might be a Carlsberg option. Recent (which is a relative term in history) research suggests that the fear of god may have been a major contributing factor to the final decision. A celestial event occurred which may have convinced many that the Insular Church did not hold favour with god. By wonderful coincidence, there was a total solar eclipse around the time of the Insular celebration  that year, the track of which left all of Northumbria, southern Scotland, northern Ireland (the adherents to the Insular system), and most importantly, Iona, home of the  Insular faction, in darkness. The south of Ireland and England, and especially York, core of the Roman faction, enjoyed Easter on a nice sunny day (it may have been raining, but the point stands) . The light of god, the very word of god was hidden from the followers of the Insular Easter. This was clearly a sign from on high that the non-Roman system had displeased the powers that be, and that all the people of the islands should follow in the footsteps of Rome.

The Path of God. Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.

Consequently, the leap was made, and Oswiu told all his subjects to change accordingly. Most complied, and the Roman methods of practice spread throughout the north of Britain and Ireland. A certain number of English clerics refused to join the crowd, left England, and set up shop in the west of Ireland, in a place called ‘Maigh Eo’ (plain of the yew tree), or Mayo. But for the rest of the people of the islands, this event has been trumpeted as an  important leap of faith; for the first time they were focused on Rome and Europe, and, in turn, were the focus of Rome. It has been argued by modern spiritualists and ‘Celtic Christians’ that this was a decided shift away from local ‘organic’ faith to international organised religion, the first step to globalisation. Which is nonsense; the Irish Churches had always deferred to Rome on matters of doctrine, and agreed that, basically, the Pope was in charge. And the islands were already ‘globalised’; how else would lapis lazuli from Afghanistan , or red and yellow ochre from the Mediterranean, end up in Ireland, aside from the fact that the Anglo-Saxons themselves traded with the continent, as had the Romano-British before the invasion? The change from Insular to Roman Christianity was actually rather civilised, considering that conversion from one form of Christianity to another often required bloodshed, and a good deal of it. This lack of violence was probably due to the very fact that faith was not in question, simply practice, and while it may have been impossible for the Cathars to renounce their version of Christianity, it seems that it was relatively easy for the Irish, Scots, British, and English to change the date of Easter.

The curious may find the complete evidence for the solar eclipse theory in McCarthy and Breen, ‘Astronomical Observations in the Irish Annals and their Motivation’, Peritia vol.11 (1997).