With only a month to go, Christmas is already appearing all over shop windows and adverts. At the same time, across the country, people are engaging in another annual pastime: remarking that the commercialisation of Christmas is causing festive advertising to start earlier every year. At the heart of this issue lies a perennial question: what is the meaning of Christmas? Many people worry that the true, religious importance of the festival is being forgotten, with Christmas being ‘secularised’ by modern society. Others sometimes respond by claiming that Christmas is actually little more than the repackaging of earlier, pagan winter festivals.
Rather than rehashing these arguments about the origins of Christmas, I think it’s more illuminating to look at the transformation of another celebration from this time of year: the Brumalia, an ancient Roman festival that started on 24th November. Its origins are obscure, but it seems to have developed out of the Bruma, a festival which lasted for only one day, and which looked ahead to the winter solstice (called bruma in Latin), which occurred a month later. Little evidence for the events of the original Roman Bruma now survives.
By the sixth century AD onwards, when people started to write about it more, the Bruma had been transformed into the Brumalia, and it now lasted for twenty-four days. Each day was assigned one letter of the Greek alphabet, starting with alpha (α) on 24th November and finishing with omega (ω) on 17th December. The custom was for a person to throw a party on the day which corresponded to the first letter of their own name, thereby providing some welcome entertainment as winter set in (as well as a chance for the rich to show off).
The Brumalia seems to have been popular across the Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean. Two sets of accounts from the wine cellars of a large estate in sixth-century Egypt detail the wine that was distributed to officials and servants to celebrate the Brumalia of the master, Apion, on 24th November. A speech by the orator Choricius of Gaza praises the festivities laid on by the emperor Justinian (527-565), remarking that the emperor and his wife, Theodora, celebrated the Brumalia on adjacent days, since the letter iota (ι) directly follows theta (θ) in the Greek alphabet.
Nonetheless, in an empire that had been becoming gradually more Christian, especially since the reign of Constantine (306-337), the festival was not without its opponents. Writing around the time of Justinian, John the Lydian regarded the Brumalia as an amalgamation of earlier pagan practices, including Saturnalia, which previously took place on 17th December, as well as sacrifices of pig and goats. He even claimed that, during this festival, some worshippers of the god Dionysus inflated goat skins and jumped on them. Church councils in 692 and 743 also disapproved and banned the celebration.
Despite this opposition, however, the Brumalia continued to take place in the imperial court at Constantinople down to the tenth century. What is surprising is not just that a ‘pagan’ ritual survived under Christian emperors, including Justinian, but that it actually evolved within a Christian empire. John the Lydian states that the twenty-four day Brumalia festival, with one letter assigned to each day, was a recent innovation, only acquiring this form in the sixth century. This supposedly pagan activity had come into being, and found great popularity, at the same time as successive emperors were issuing harsh laws against pagans and their practices.
So was the Brumalia ‘pagan’ or ‘Christian’? Similarly, is Christmas a religious festival, a pagan remnant or a secular celebration? I don’t think there’s a clear answer to these questions. While I’m not advocating the greater commercialisation of Christmas, the example of the Brumalia demonstrates that social activities and rituals are never static, and that they can often develop in ways that confound our expectations and prevent us assigning them, and those who enjoy them, into simple categories. 1
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If you’d like to hold your own Brumalia party (although perhaps without the inflated goat skins), I’ve devised this little table to help you convert the first letter of your name to the corresponding letter of the Greek alphabet and then see which date it matches up with. The letters ‘E’ and ‘O’ in English each have two equivalent letters in Greek, depending on whether the sound is long or short, while the Greek letters theta, phi, chi and psi correspond to the sounds ‘Th’, ‘Ph’, ‘Ch’ and ‘Ps’ in English. Also, if your name begins with ‘H’, you should ignore it and go to the second letter of your name instead, as no such letter exists in Greek. You can use either your first name or your family name – it’s your festival.
|English letter/sound||Greek letter||Brumalia date|
|A||α (alpha)||24th November|
|B||β (beta)||25th November|
|C (as in Cameron or Colin); Ch (as in Charles or Christopher)||κ (kappa); χ (chi)||3rd December; 15th December|
|D||δ (delta)||27th November|
|E (short, as in Edward); E (long, as in Edith)||ε (epsilon); η (eta)||28th November; 30th November|
|F||φ (phi)||14th December|
|G||γ (gamma)||26th November|
|H||no equivalent||ignore and go to second letter|
|I||ι (iota)||2nd December|
|J||ι (iota)||2nd December|
|K||κ (kappa)||3rd December|
|L||λ (lambda)||4th December|
|M||μ (mu)||5th December|
|N||ν (nu)||6th December|
|O (short, as in Oliver); O (long, as in Omar or O’Reilly)||ο (omicron); ω (omega)||8th December; 17th December|
|P (as in Peter); Ph (as in Philip)Ps (as in Psyche)||π (pi); φ (phi); ψ (psi)||9th December;14th December; 16th December|
|Q||κ (kappa)||3rd December|
|R||ρ (rho)||10th December|
|S||σ (sigma)||11th December|
|T (as in Tim or Tom); Th (as in Theo)||τ (tau); θ (theta)||12th December; 1st December|
|U||υ (upsilon)||13th December|
|V||β (beta)||25th November|
|W||ο (omicron)||8th December|
|X||ξ (xi)||7th December|
|Y||υ (upsilon)||13th December|
|Z||ζ (zeta)||29th November|
Richard Flower is Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. You can follow him on Twitter @RichardAFlower
Cover image: Late Antique mosaic, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, taken by author.
- For more detailed information on the Brumalia, see J. R. Crawford, ‘De Bruma et Brumalibus festis’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 23 (1920), 365-96 (in Latin); F. Perpillou-Thomas, ‘Les Brumalia d’Apion II’, Tyche 8 (1993), 107-109 (in French); R. Mazza, ‘Choricius of Gaza, Oration XIII: Religion and State in the Age of Justinian’, in R. M. Frakes, E. D. Digeser and J. Stephens (edd.), The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity, 2010, 172-93 (in English). ↩