Once the leaves fall and the nights start getting colder and longer there are two things you can reliably expect to see. The first is a mass of people putting themselves into debt in order to purchase merchandise shoddily constructed in Chinese sweatshops which no one actually needs anyway. And secondly there is the assertion, found on countless blogs, websites, email lists, etc., that the ancient Greeks celebrated the festival of Dionysos’ birth on December 25th, which is why this date was chosen for Christmas.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of ancient Greek religion ought to be able to spot the glaring inaccuracies in this statement. Unfortunately, many do not, including folks who are otherwise sensible and knowledgeable about such matters.
I think that there are two primary causes for this temporary lapse of reason.
Christmas has become an indelible part of our popular culture. People who never set foot in a church the rest of the year attend on this night. Even folks who aren’t the least bit Christian don’t want to be left out of all the fun and excitement. They want to spend time with their families, eat lots of food, sing lots of songs, decorate their homes and offices, give and receive gaudily-wrapped presents and drink obscene amounts of alcoholic eggnog and spiced wassail. Claiming a Pagan precedent for the holiday allows them to do so while ignoring the overtly Christian trappings of the day. Secondarily there is a desire to find Pagan symbolism behind everything that has anything to do with Jesus. For some this is a way to refute Christian claims of uniqueness and authentic revelation. “See,” the skeptics cry, “your Jesus is not a true God at all. Everything about him was stolen from earlier religions. He is nothing but a hodge-podge of primitive Pagan deities and rampant superstition, tidied up and made to look like decent religion. But we know the truth!” For atheists this disproves Christ’s divinity; for Pagans this provides a means whereby Christianity can be co-opted and its more desirable elements “reclaimed.”
Such arguments are not without a basis in fact. No religion, and especially not Christianity, has ever developed in a vacuum. Christianity emerged out of a culture whose religious traditions were already thousands of years old by then. In order to make their message understandable and desirable to their neighbors they had to present it in a way that would be familiar to them. So the earliest Christians employed much of the theological and philosophical language that had passed into the koine or common culture of the Greco-Roman world. Further they adopted symbolism and iconography from the Pagan cults, drawing easily recognizable parallels between Jesus and the traditional Gods and heroes. Many folk customs and festivals were borrowed outright from their predecessors in order to lure people away from the Pagan temples and into the Christian churches – given added incentive once those temples had been outlawed, closed down and in many instances completely destroyed. Often this was a haphazard and transparent process; indeed, we have records of Bishops proudly proclaiming their success in winning over the masses this way as well as others decrying such a policy as a corruption of the original, pristine teachings of the Apostles.
So I do not deny that this happened, but I think that many take it too far, assuming that everything Christian must have a Pagan origin. This can blind people to the original nature of the Pagan Gods and their religion when they are viewed only through a Christian lens. Dionysos does indeed have much in common with Jesus Christ, as I’ve argued elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean that they are perfect analogues for each other, as their differences are often much more telling than their similarities. What similarities there are ought to be allowed to stand on their own merits as well, without having to be bolstered up by patently absurd fabrications such as this nonsense about a festival of Dionysos’ birth celebrated on December 25th by the Greeks.
Nonsense it is, too, no matter how frequently one finds the claim repeated. This is the only conclusion you can come away with after closely examining the evidence. After all, what festival of the ancients are we talking about here? Dionysos had hundreds of them throughout the Greco-Roman world and yet we are never told the name of this alleged prototype of Christmas, nor provided any ancient sources explaining how it was celebrated.
The reason why no evidence is put forth by these would-be Pagan apologists is because none exists, nor can exist. Anyone who has done even a cursory study of ancient Greek religion would be able to tell you that their festivals were determined by a lunar calendar which lacked the astronomical precision of our own. Today a date always falls at the same time in relation to the solar cycle, even when it’s a couple days off thanks to a leap year. But when you reckon time by the phases of the moon you can see a significant drift of weeks or months over the course of a couple years. This is why the ancients periodically had to add extra months in order to avoid winter festivals falling during summertime and vice versa. Even when the ancients recognized the problem of drift and came up with a more precise solar calendar they continued to determine religious dates by the older system, appointing special priests to ensure that everything ran smoothly. Indeed, we often see both civic and religious dates given on important documents and inscriptions for this reason. Thus, you’re just not going to find an ancient Greek festival of Dionysos celebrated on December 25th. You may find something dated 13 Poseideon which happened to correspond with the 25th of December one year, but it wouldn’t fall at that time again for quite a while. (Now, if it was a Roman festival that might be a different story. But those who argue this usually insist on its Greekness.)
Furthermore we must ask which birth of Dionysos is supposedly commemorated on this date? Is it when he emerged golden and winged from the primordial egg at the dawn of creation? (Orphic frag. 54) Or when he was born on Crete, the child of Zeus and Kore-Persephone? (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Bibliotheka Historika 5.75.4) Maybe it’s his birth in the flames that consumed the mortal princess Semele? (Hesiod, Theogony 940) Or when he broke loose from the secret womb that Zeus had put in his thigh to carry the babe to full term? (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 3.28) Or perhaps it’s one of his other births that’s meant, when Demeter (Diodoros 3.62), Dione (Scholiast on Pind. Pyth. 3.177), Amaltheia (Diodoros 3.67), Isis (Alexarchos, FGrH 3.324), Indus (Philostratos, Life of Apollonios 2.9) Lethe (Plutarch, Symposiacs 7.5) and numerous others were pregnant with him?
An important question we must now ask is whether any of these births of the God were celebrated during winter. After all even if the date itself did not precisely line up with Christmas if there was a festival of the nativity of Dionysos during this time it may have served as an inspiration for the early Christians.
Aelian (On Animals 12. 34) recounts an interesting Dionysian festival wherein the birth of the bull-horned God was dramatized in the most concrete way possible:
The people of Tenedos keep a pregnant cow for Dionysos Anthroporraistos (Man-Slayer), and as soon as it has calved they tend to it as though it were a woman in child-bed. They put buskins on the newly born calf and then sacrifice it. But the man who dealt it the blow with the axe is pelted with stones by the populace and flees until he reaches the sea.
Although our author does not provide us with a date for this festival we can be certain that it wasn’t during winter since the calving season in Greece tends to be during spring and summer. Pausanias, in fact, mentions (8.19.2) that in the Arkadian village of Kynaithai during a winter festival of Dionysos men carried a bull (chosen through divine inspiration) in their arms all the way to the sanctuary, showing that the animals had reached a mature state by that point.
Likewise Pindar mentions (frag. 75) a festival in Thebes honoring Semele as the mother of Dionysos, but this takes place “at the opening of fragrant Spring, when the Horai bring forth nectar-breathing plants” and “the immortal earth is decorated with lovely violets and maidens entwine roses in their hair and sing sweetly to the accompaniment of flutes for the dance-loving Goddess.”
Diodoros (3.66.3) mentions a birth-festival of Dionysos at Teos:
The Teans advance as proof that the God was born among them the fact that, even to this day, at fixed times in their city a fountain of wine, of unusually sweet fragrance, flows of its own accord from the earth.
Some have suggested that those “fixed times” were in winter on account of the similarity of this miracle to the one that took place at Andros, as recorded by Pliny the Elder:
It is accredited by the Mucianus who was three times consul that the water flowing from a spring in the temple of Liber Pater on the island of Andros always has the flavor of wine on January 5th: the day is called the God’s Gift Day … If the jars are carried out of sight of the temple the taste turns back to that of water. (Natural History 2.106; 31.16)
This identification has some serious problems, however. To begin with the two islands lie a considerable distance apart, with Teos originally settled by Boiotians and the Andrian colonists coming from Euboia, each possessing a vastly different culture and religious customs. Why should they agree on this but nothing else? More importantly Pliny’s account has no suggestion of a celebration of the God’s birth – rather it seems a fairly standard divine epiphany with Dionysos dispensing his gift to mankind in a very memorable way. Are we to assume that every time wine miraculously flows – for instance when the ecstatic Mainades strike their thyrsoi against the ground – baby Bacchus is near at hand?
There is a very good reason for us to be skeptical not only of this facile identification but of the whole notion of a winter-born Dionysos: this is the time of year when grapevines resemble barren twigs. Dionysos has such a powerful connection with the lifecycle of this plant that I doubt anyone taking a stroll through the fields would say, “Yes, now is when I feel the youthful exuberance of my God the most!” During spring, when the animals are giving birth and flowers are breaking through the soil and love is in the air – that seems far more appropriate. Which much we learn from Plutarch, who wrote:
The Phrygians believe that the God sleeps in winter and is awake in summer, and with Bacchic frenzy they celebrate in the one season the festival of his being lulled to sleep called Kateunasmous and in the other his being aroused or awakened, which is Anegerseis. The Paphlagonians declare that he is fettered and imprisoned during the winter, but that in the spring he moves and is freed once more. (On Isis and Osiris 69)
In other regions this sequence was not played out annually but rather every other year, in keeping with the rotation of the fields and the lifecycle of the grape:
The Boiotians and other Greeks and the Thracians, in memory of the campaign in India, have established sacrifices every other year to Dionysos, and believe that at that time the God reveals himself to human beings. Consequently in many Greek cities every other year Bacchic bands of women gather, and it is lawful for the maidens to carry the thyrsos and to join in the frenzied revelry, crying out ‘Euai!’ and honoring the God; while the matrons, forming in groups, offer sacrifices to the God and celebrate his mysteries and, in general, extol with hymns the presence of Dionysos, in this manner acting the parts of maenads who, as history records, were of old the companions of the God. (Diodoros 4.3.2–5)
At Delphi these trieteric rites were specifically carried out during winter:
Cold, moreover, is perceptibly one of the hardest of things and it makes things hard and unyielding. Theophrastus, for instance, tells us that when frozen fish are dropped on the ground, they are broken and smashed to bits just like objects of glass or earthenware. And at Delphi you yourself heard, in the case of those who climbed Parnassus to rescue the Thyiades when they were trapped by a fierce gale and snowstorm, that their capes were frozen so stiff and wooden that when they were opened out, they broke and split apart. (Plutarch, On the Principle of Cold 18)
Winter, after all, was the time when Dionysos took control of Delphi from Apollon when the Far-shooter went off among the Hyperboreans:
Dionysos has no less to do with Delphi than has Apollon, though Dionysos – whom they name Zagreus and Nyctelios and Isodaites – is not constant, as Apollon is. There is his passage and distribution into waves and water, and earth, and stars, and nascent plants and animals – and this transformation they describe as a rending and dismemberment. Deaths too and vanishings do they construct, passages out of life and new births, all riddles and tales to match the changes mentioned. So they sing to Dionysos dithyrambic strains, charged with sufferings and a change wherein are wanderings and dismemberment. For Aischylos says:
In mingled cries the dithyramb should ring,
With Dionysos revelling, its King.
But Apollon has the Paean, a set and sober music. Apollon is ever ageless and young; Dionysos has many forms and many shapes as represented in paintings and sculpture, which attribute to Apollon smoothness and order and a gravity with no admixture, to Dionysos a blend of sport and sauciness with seriousness and frenzy:
God that sett’st maiden’s blood
Dancing in frenzied mood,
Blooming with pageantry!
Evoe! we cry
So do they summon him, rightly catching the character of the change. The periods when they rule are not equal, that called ‘satiety’ being longer, that of ‘scarcity’ shorter, they here preserve a proportion, and use the Paean with their sacrifice for the rest of the year, but at the beginning of winter revive the dithyramb, and stop the Paean, and invoke this God instead of the other, supposing that this ratio of three to one is that of the ‘Arrangement’ to the ‘Conflagration.’ (Plutarch, On the E at Delphi 9)
And shortly after Dionysos gives way to the returning Apollon, the Athenians celebrated Anthesteria, the central feature of which was the God’s mystic hieros gamos with the Basilinna to bring fertility to the land:
And this woman offered for you on behalf of the city the unspeakably holy rites, and she saw what it was inappropriate for her, being a foreigner, to see; and being a foreigner she entered where no other of all the Athenians except the wife of the king enters; she administered the oath to the gerarai who serve at the rites, and she was given to Dionysos as his bride, and she performed on behalf of the city the traditional acts, many sacred and ineffable ones, towards the Gods. In ancient times, Athenians, there was a monarchy in our city, and the kingship belonged to those who in turn were outstanding because of being indigenous. The king used to make all of the sacrifices, and his wife used to perform those which were most holy and ineffable – and appropriately since she was queen. But when Theseus centralized the city and created a democracy, and the city became populace, the people continued no less than before to select the king, electing him from among the most distinguished in noble qualities. And they passed a law that his wife should be an Athenian who has never had intercourse with another man, but that he should marry a virgin, in order that according to ancestral custom she might offer the ineffably holy rites on behalf of the city, and that the customary observances might be done for the Gods piously, and that nothing might be neglected or altered. They inscribed this law on a stele and set it beside the altar in the sanctuary of Dionysos En Limnais. This stele is still standing today, displaying the inscription in worn Attic letters. Thus the people bore witness about their own piety toward the God and left a testament for their successors that we require her who will be given to the God as his bride and will perform the sacred rites to be that kind of woman. For these reasons they set in the most ancient and holy temple of Dionysos in Limnai, so that most people could not see the inscription. For it is opened once each year, on the twelfth of the month Anthesterion. (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 73–76)
Now consider all that you’ve just read. During winter we’ve got a chthonic Dionysos reveling on the mountaintop with dancing madwomen who then goes on to cuckold the king. Does any of that suggest an infant to you?
Another question worth asking is do any of the winter festivals of Dionysos – those I’ve mentioned above as well as things like the Brumalia, the Rural Dionysia or Lenaia – bear any resemblance at all to the customs that came to be associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth? The answer is a resounding no. If there are any Pagan antecedents they lie in Saturnalia and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – festivals which, as the old proverb of the theater goes, have nothing to do with Dionysos.