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So This Is Christmas... The Origins of a Modern Holiday

What were the Roman origins of our modern Christmas celebrations, and why do some countries celebrate on 7 January? In this month's Discover & Create, we're exploring the ancient roots of Christmas!


The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting the Romans at war with the Goths (3rd century CE)
Antoine-François Callet, Saturnalia (1783). Public Domain.

DISCOVER


It may come as a surprise, but Christmas as we know it is a fairly recent invention. Did you know that Christmas trees weren’t used in England until 1840, and that the image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man in red was invented by Coca Cola for an ad campaign in 1931?


However, while some Christmas customs are surprisingly modern, gift-giving and celebrating on 25 December are two traditions which seem to have their origins in the ancient world.


The Roman Saturnalia

and the Mock King


In ancient Rome, the Saturnalia was a week-long festival in honour of the god Saturn, which ran from 17 December to 23 December. During this time, no one worked and gifts were exchanged – a bit like our modern Christmas, but with the somewhat unusual addition of a 'Mock King' – a randomly chosen citizen who was 'king' for the week of Saturnalia!


This tradition continued and evolved long after the Roman empire. Over a thousand years later in Medieval England, for example, it was common to serve a Christmas cake with a bean hidden inside. The person who was served the piece of cake with the bean was elected King of the Bean, and could command everyone else at the table!


Even today, many families hide a coin inside their Christmas puddings, and the person to find it is said to have good luck and wealth for the next year.


Gabriel Metsu, The Feast of the Bean King (1654). Notice the man on the left – his crown looks quite a bit like the paper crowns we get in Christmas crackers today!

Sol Invictus


So if Saturnalia was celebrated from 17–23 December, why do we now celebrate Christmas on the 25th? There are a few theories about this and one is that it was borrowed from the ancient Roman holiday honouring Sol Invictus, “The Unconquered Sun.” Sol Invictus was a highly popular sun-god who was thought to have been born on 25 December.


The Romans also celebrated The Unconquered Sun on 25 December because this day falls in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere winter, marking the start of longer days and the lead up to Spring. It's as if the sun is being reborn and remains unconquered by the darkness of winter.


Christmas on 7 January... for now.


Did you know that some countries – including Russia, Egypt, Poland, Serbia and others – celebrate Christmas on 7 January? Until 1923, Greece also celebrated Christmas on this day.


This is because for nearly 1,000 years the Christian church has been divided between Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, and Catholics in Western Europe. For centuries, all Orthodox Christians measured the year using the Julian calendar, a system introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE that is very similar to the Gregorian calendar we use, except for one key difference: the Julian year is 11 minutes too long!


These 11 extra minutes have added up over the years, and now the dates between the Gregorian and Julian calendars no longer match. Today there is a 13 day difference, and this is why many Orthodox countries celebrate Christmas on 7 January – at least until the year 2100, when the extra minutes will continue to add up and Christmas on the Julian calendar will tick over to the Gregorian equivalent of 8 January.


Greece was once among the Orthodox countries who celebrate Christmas in January, until it adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1923 and began celebrating on 25 December.


 

Frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicting Nike and Athena battling Alkyoneus
6-minute chocolate pudding. Image via Just a Mum's Kitchen.

CREATE


These holidays, why not take part in a little bit of historical, Christmas-inspired fun and see who in your family is King of the Bean! Simply hide a bean inside a cake or pudding, and whoever receives the slice with the bean inside becomes king – meaning everyone else at the table has to imitate everything the king does!


If you're not sure what kind of cake to make, you might like to try this simple, 6-minute recipe for chocolate pudding. Slip the bean (or coin, almond or banana slice) into one of the servings without anyone seeing, and try your luck! Don't forget to ask an adult for help in the kitchen, and if you're using a coin, be careful not to eat it.


Until next time,

λεῖος πλόος!

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