Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Pagan Christmas in High Summer

An offering of gingerbread men I made to Saturn
Christmas presents a bit of a problem for me. Obviously there is the problem of the very obvious Christian aspect of this most popular of Western celebrations, and then there is the problem that the most common Pagan twists on this important holiday tend to focus on the winter solstice, which obviously has absolutely no application in the southern hemisphere – where I live and have lived for many years. Another common Pagan re-interpretation of Christmas revolves around Saturnalia – which is worthy but doesn’t completely solve my problem.

Reinventing Christmas by looking to Saturnalia doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons, but the main reason is that Saturnalia begins on the 17th of December and ends before the 24th. This effectively takes it out of contention as a suitable means of reinterpreting Christmas in a manner consistent with Paganism. The people with whom I celebrate Christmas would not have a bar of it. They will not want to replace Christmas with a celebration on the 17th – so close to the 24th and 25th, the days about which they actually care. They will not want to exchange gifts on the 23rd. They will know little about the agricultural and bounteous nature of Saturn, and such stories will not resonate with them. What does resonate with all of us though, as far as Saturnalia goes, is the urge to make merry during this period, to dress up, and to even enjoy a bit of role reversal, or at least upset the status quo in a licentious way. The suggestion that gingerbread men originate in human shaped biscuits made during Saturnalia (perhaps as human sacrifice by proxy?) also appeals for being so dark, deep and primeval. Thus I can certainly begin celebrating the Christmas period in the spirit of Saturnalia, but I cannot replace Christmas with Saturnalia.

The final obvious option, once Saturnalia and the Winter solstice are taken out of the equation, is to celebrate the natalis Invicti (birthday of Sol Invictus – the Unconquerable Sun), as supposedly:
Christ as Sol Invictus (3rd century CE)
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. 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 [R MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale University Press, 1997, citing comments by a 12th century scribe]."
However, there is a problem with this solution too – as there is no compelling evidence from ancient times to suggest that the birthday feast of Sol Invictus was actually a big deal for Pagans. The feast is not mentioned by Beard et al in their chapter of festivals and ceremonies in the well respected Religions of Rome: Volume 2. Nor is it mentioned in Turcan’s The Gods of Ancient Rome or Shelton’s As the Romans Did. According to these worthy authors, the festivals that were really big in ancient Rome were the Lupercalia (February) and Saturnalia. Other, less important but still popular, festivals included the Parilia and Robigalia in April and the Ambarvalia in May.

If there was a festival of the natalis Invicti on the 25th of December it was not, apparently, widely celebrated – or at least not until late into the Roman period. The first certain record of the natalis Invicti having been on the 25th of December is from 354 CE – which is very late into the Roman era. At this time the cult of Sol Invictus had been popular for at least eighty years, following Emperor Aurelian’s move in 274 CE to make it an official state cult – though clearly Romans had honoured Sol since time immemorial (for example, we know a Roman coin depicting Sol, in the same fashion as later depictions of Sol Invictus, was minted in the 3rd century BCE). By the 4th century CE there appears to have been some overlap between sun worship and Christianity – it is possible that Christian leaders of the day did not wish to alienate the sun worshippers, but rather sought to assimilate them into the Church by merging the birth of the sun with the birth of Christ (and thus specifically associating Christ with the sun), but even if that is true it does not make a celebration of the natalis Invicti on the 25th of December a longstanding, traditional Pagan celebration.

Trundholm sun chariot (c.1700 BCE, Denmark)
The thing is though, the sun shines hotly on the 25th of December where I live, thus to honour the sun on Christmas day seems very natural and appropriate. Especially given the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere appears around the time of Christmas (generally a few days before Christmas). Also, sun worship is obviously a tradition that is Pagan to the bone. The Trundholm sun chariot suggests that my own Germanic ancestors worshipped the sun with the utmost reverence – and, interestingly, the association of the sun with a chariot is quite possibly fundamental to the prehistoric religions of the Indo-European tribes, given that the sun chariot is also a feature of Greek mythology and Hindu legend. As far as the Roman tradition goes, it appears that an annual sacrifice in honour of Sol has some antiquity – it is marked out to take place in August in several Augustan calendars. This is very appropriate, given that August is the hottest month of the Roman year. Similarly, Christmas day in the southern hemisphere arrives just a few weeks before the hottest weeks of the year. Thus, I think that regardless of the doubtful antiquity of the feast of the natalis Invicti, it does seem consistent with Paganism to honour the sun at a time when it burns most brightly, and as Christmas is a time I have long associated with the hot, bright sun it could not be more obvious that a Pagan celebration of Christmas in the southern hemisphere should translate to a celebration in honour of the sun.

Celebrating a Pagan Christmas in honour of the sun (in summer)
Solar Apollo, late 2nd century CE, 
Tunisia (photo by J Bartram)
How then to shape celebrations of Christmas so to honour the sun? Initially one may be confused – does one honour Sol or Phoebus or Apollo? I think that they are one and the same God, but that at times people may focus on the specific attribute of Apollo that is the sun (Sol) – for how could the deity associated with the sun not be one of the Dii Consentes?

Thus a Pagan Christmas in the southern hemisphere should involve an offering to Apollo. I think good quality incense in a reasonably plentiful amount (perhaps nine sticks/cones of incense to represent the sun and the eight planets which revolve around it) would be acceptable. I note that Hindus traditionally offer flowers and fruit to the Hindu equivalent of Apollo (Surya – who, like Apollo, is associated with the sun and with healing). On my balcony I have a brass image of the sun so I will perform my offering before this image, while making prayers as the sun is setting on Christmas Eve (my balcony faces west so this is appropriate). On Christmas morning I will rise in time to go to a local park to watch the sun rise – because I don’t want to freak out the locals I will avoid engaging in a very obvious Pagan ritual, but I can engage in sun meditation (a variation on the Hindu Chhath).

Obviously a feast in honour of the sun is called for, but what to eat? Eating sun-dried foods might be an idea, but as all crops, except mushrooms, require the sun to grow perhaps any food that is born of the sun is suitable. Avoiding eating the flesh of animals that spent most of their lives in feedlots (thus away from the sun) may be another idea. Avoiding the flesh of cows may be called for, given that at least two myths about Apollo connect him to keeping sacred cattle (with both Mercurius and the friends of Ulysses infamously stealing from his herd).

Likewise we may consider the way we decorate our homes. I will choose decorations for the house that evoke the sun – gold in particular, with oranges and reds also being appropriate (wearing these colours may be another idea). Gold also works well for a Saturnalian twist to the Christmas period – as Saturn was said to have reigned over the world during a golden age of peace and prosperity. Golden stars are an obvious motif for solar Christmas decorations (for the sun is a star), as are Christmas balls (for this reflects the shape of the sun), while horses, spoke wheels and chariots (symbolic of the sun chariot of Indo-Europeans religions) would also be appropriate. Symbols of Apollo, including musical instruments – especially lyres – musical notes, the archer’s bow, bay laurel and hyacinth are other ideas. Furthermore, in Hindu celebrations surrounding Surya kites tend to feature strongly, so this could be another option.

What then of more traditional Christmas motifs, such as Santa and the scene of the nativity? The Pagan flavour of Santa is obvious – he appears to be a mish-mash of various cross-cultural and cross-religious themes (including Scandinavian ideas around Tomten/Nissen and Odin, the British Father Christmas – he being the spirit of Christmas, which seems very Pagan – and of course the Christian Saint Nicholas). Santa is far too popular to ignore, particularly when there are children in the household, so I will certainly include him in my Christmas celebrations. As for the scene of the nativity – even this can be given a Pagan twist, insofar as the story of the Magi goes (whereby Christianity appears to be manufacturing the endorsement of Christ by Zoroastrianism). This is problematic though so I personally will avoid nativity scenes. Another popular motif at Christmas time is the Christmas tree – again this is obviously Pagan in origin and in flavour, so I will not argue with it. To me the Christmas tree feels like a Christmas shrine – it is the focal point of Christmas decoration. How it ties in with sun worship is unclear, but then it is completely unclear as to how the Christmas tree ties in with Christian Christmas rituals so I don’t think there is any problem with including Christmas trees in a Paganised Christmas. Furthermore, as I am a daughter of the Germanic tribes, the inclusion of the Christmas tree can be considered a symbolic nod to the traditions of my Germanic ancestors, and the same can perhaps be said regarding Santa.

And so I come full circle  just as my ancestors celebrated the winter solstice in honour of the sun's movements, so the sun is revered at the same time of year by me, but not because the days are short and the nights are long, but because the sun is glorious, brilliant and hot (and because without the sun we are nothing). 

Summary of my Pagan Christmas in the summertime
  • 17 December: Saturnalia – first day of the Pagan Christmas period. Ensure the house is decorated for Christmas. Work Christmas celebration in the day; in the afternoon make an offering (shortbread men) to Saturn, then swap roles with other members of my familia (by dressing up as each other) and eat a delicious Italian dinner with plenty of good wine. Eat and drink pretty much whatever I want between now and Christmas day.
  • 24 December: have a fabulous dinner in honour of Apollo from 6pm onwards and make an offering to Apollo as the sun sets (ritual offering to commence around 7.20pm – for 7.45pm sunset). After sunset light the Christmas tree and burn sparklers in honour of loved ones who have passed on. Leave out food offerings for Santa and his reindeer.
  • 25 December: rise at 5.15am and go to park to mindfully watch the sun rise (rises at 5.38am). Come home and have a splendid breakfast and open presents with my familia. Go and visit extended family for Christmas lunch in the usual fashion. 

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook


  1. Some more connections to sun worship for you to ponder. Christmas is Yule in the Norse traditions and Yule literally means wheel, representing the wheel of the sun. The Norse called Christmas night, Mother’s night and the 25th December was the rebirth of the sun, so Christians called it the rebirth of the son of god. In certain parts of Germany Frigga/Freya the queen of the Norse gods and wife of Oden/Woden, was called Frau Venus (See Tanhauser), so she may have been the mother referred to at Mothers Night, still it's a connection to a Roman goddess. The Christmas tree represents the tree of life forever green and the baubles hung on it’s branches are the promise of the sun ripened fruit to come, more connections to sun worship. The Yule log which must kept burning throughout Christmas eve is also symbolic of keeping the light alive so that the sun may be coaxed back on the twenty fifth. "On midwinter's day a child is born fresh with the wisdom of the void and coaxes the return of the sun.” The child is of course the sun god. At the same time he is being born in the Northern hemisphere he is at his at full growth in the Southern hemisphere..
    BB Dreamwalker

    1. Yep, whether you're in the north or the south I think sun worship at Xmas time makes sense:)

  2. Also an interesting factoid, Dionysus had a festival on the 25th of December (the Brumalia).

    1. Thanks:) Thanks also for reminding me about the Brumalia - I have looked into it before and it doesn't seem that there is strong evidence for it having been celebrated in Rome itself as far as I can work out, though it was elsewhere in the later Roman empire, especially in the east and perhaps a variation of it in Roman Africa too. It is a somewhat mysterious festival that I think I will look into again.

  3. eu comemoro Dies Natalis Solis Invicti
    (Aniversário do Sol Inconquistável) é um feriado de solstício de inverno comemorado em 25 de dezembro, em dedicação ao rei Helios . É um dia de festa observado como o momento em que o sol se renova, o inverno frio é derrotado e o sol renasce novamente. O Imperador Juliano liga a celebração como algo baseado nas práticas de Numa Pompilius. Uma celebração a Mitra também ocorre no mesmo dia.