Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Unconquered Son

In AD 274, when the Roman Empire seemed on the brink of collapse, the emperor Aurelian declared the creation of a new feast: the festival of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun.” The holiday, which was first held 1,740 years ago to the day, was a celebration of the very heavenly event that we’re experiencing right now: in the days after the winter solstice, the days are gradually, and extremely slowly, beginning to get longer. This was a profoundly happy event in the Roman consciousness, not least because the lightbulb hadn’t been invented yet. Sol Invictus was a symbol of the triumph of light over darkness; of life over death.  Unlike Apollo, the older sun-god, Sol was not associated with poetry, beauty, or anything human or refined. He was a simple personification of light, warmth, and joy. The fact that his feast-day was in the middle of the dark winter was especially poignant: it was an affirmation that though he might hide, he would never die, and that his day would come again.

Meanwhile, it’s Christmas Eve today. As I write this, it’s a gray, dripping day outside in New York. But I’m inside with a mug full of warm tea and an inbox full of warmer emails. And Handel’s Messiah is playing on WQXR:

You’ve almost definitely heard that the current date of Christmas was meant to correspond with a pagan holiday. Sol Invictus’ feast happens to be that supposed pagan holiday. The theory goes like this: early Christian bishops in the Roman Empire, seeing their flocks so attracted to the ubiquitous candlelighting rituals in honor of Sol, decided to take advantage of this folk practice, and to redirect the Christians’ superstitious energies to the celebration of Christ’s birth. So they fixed the date of Christmas on December 25th, and that’s how it’s been ever since.

There’s a second, much more interesting hypothesis, which a professor suggested to me: since Christianity was already widespread in the Empire by 274, it’s possible that Aurelian himself was attempting to capitalize on Christianity’s success. In other words, it could be that the pagan holiday of Invictus Sol was based on Christmas. This theory is just as unsupported by any evidence by the first, and slightly less probable, but much more entertaining. 

A relief of Sol Invictus.
Any resemblance to enormous statues, oxidized or unoxidized, is purely uncoincidental. 
I would like to propose a third theory: the two holidays are indistinguishable, and commemorate exactly the same events.
First, consider what’s being celebrated on the day of Sol Invictus: for the month of December, the world had seemed like it was going to be swallowed up forever by darkness. (It never gets cold in Rome, but the days get just as short as they do in the States.) And there’s almost no force as unstoppable as human pessimism. So even though it had happened countless years before, the return of the sun was surprising—so impenetrable had endless night come to seem. The bewildering victory of life over death had been acted out in heaven. The shadow was just a passing thing; it would be only a matter of time before the entire world was covered in sunlight and spring blossoms.

But daylight wasn’t the only thing that seemed doomed to extinguishment to the ancient mind. Human life was in the same danger of permanent darkness. Ancient Europe, like modern Europe, was immersed in an atheist, fatalist philosophy: the only spiritual comfort around was bitter embrace of the overwhelming fact of death. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” was on the lips of emperors and slaves alike. Invictus Sol might be invictus, but human beings only had eyes to see him for threescore years and ten.

And then, in a manger in Bethlehem, light really came to the world, and human life triumphed over death. A child had come to earth with the news of eternal life; a message that would soon be taken seriously by the most learned philosophers. All of a sudden, for thousands of souls—soon to be billions—there was hope for a life that would overcome winter. Christmas is an expression of the most radical optimism conceivable.

So the two holidays are really responses to the same thing. Actually, not quite the same: even though the feast of Sol Invictus commemorates an enormous, cosmic event, it comes with a promise of only temporary relief from darkness. There will be another winter. Christmas, meanwhile, celebrates something that happened in the arms of a mother. But it promises a far more permanent, mirthful triumph over the dark: the death of death.

As a dutiful pagan, then, I’ll be toasting tonight to the lesser soli invicto atque maxumo. But a merry Christmas to everyone in God’s flock. And even though there’s no real war on Christmas, I’d like to suggest starting one with a preemptive strike on its behalf.


Anonymous said...

Your blog often reminds me of Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater. Are you familiar with it?

"AUTHORS" > Pater, Walter Horatio >Marius the Epicurean, I. (1885) PDF version.

Jonathan S Nathan said...

It's already on my list! Thanks for the reminder to get around to it.