On Brumalia

In the early Roman period bruma (Gr. βρουμα) meant simply “winter” and by extension “winter solstice,” as we see in Cato:

Oak wood and also wood for vine props is always ripe for cutting during bruma. (Cato, Agricultura 17.1)

And Varro:

Bruma is so named because then the day is brevissimus ‘shortest’: the solstitium, because on that day the sun seems sistere ‘to halt,’ on which it is nearest to us. The time from the bruma until the sun returns to the bruma, is called an annus ‘year,’ because just as little circles are anuli ‘rings,’ so big circuits were called ani, whence comes annus ‘year.’ (Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.8)

And Ovid:

Bruma is the beginning of the new sun and the end of the old one. (Ovid, Fasti 1.161)

Then, around the 2nd century CE or so Brumalia came to signify a Greek festival held in parts of the Roman empire. One of its primary themes was the cessation of military campaigning, as we find in the Byzantine-era orator Chorikios of Gaza:

I pray that strife between Gods and men will cease and I condemn the poet for valorizing the wrath of Achilles, even if I recognize that sometimes strife can be a forerunner of good things. […] Once upon a time the community of the Athenians, when Tyche smiled upon them in Thebes, enjoyed themselves with public sacrifices, and the city was full of auspicious stories; it is pleasant indeed to enquire about and to listen to stories of victories and successes. And it is said that when Alexander the son of Philip seized Persia he offered a royal banquet and proposed toasts in honor of friendship to the guests. […] The Romans did not need the good warning of Herodotos, for they knew well that for humankind time cannot be all for toiling. Thus during winter they celebrated the cessation of hostilities and celebrated a festival for each letter of the alphabet. (Oration 13.4, 6-9)

The aita for this festival is provided by John Malalas, who writes:

Because of this Romus devised what is known as the Brumalia, declaring, it is said, that the emperor of the time must entertain his entire senate and officials and all who serve in the palace, since they are persons of consequence, during the winter when there is a respite from fighting. He began by inviting and entertaining first those whose names began with alpha, and so on, right to the last letter; he ordered his senate to entertain in the same way. They too entertained the whole army, and those they wanted. This custom of the Brumalia has persisted in the Roman state to the present day. (Chronicle 7.7)

Leaving behind war for the duration of this holiday – which lasted from November 24 to December 17, each day of which was assigned a letter of the alphabet – people gave themselves over to festive games and celebrations, exchanged gifts and attended sumptuous feasts thrown by hosts on their name-day. A well-connected Greek or Roman of the period could find himself attending a different banquet each night for the better part of a month that this festival took place!

This was not just an occasion for blowing off steam and working one’s social network – sacrifices were made to Dionysos and the daimones, as well as other chthonic figures such as Kronos and Demeter, who received a sacrifice of swine on this occasion:

And the farming people would slaughter pigs for the worship of Kronos and Demeter—and hence even now the “Pig-Slaughter” is observed in December. And the vine-dressers would sacrifice goats in honor of Dionysos—for the goat is an enemy of the vine; and they would skin them, fill the skin-bags with air and jump on them. And the civic officials would also offer as the firstfruits of the collected harvest wine and olive oil, grain and honey and as many products of trees as endure and are preserved—they would make loaves without water and they would bring all these things to the priests of the Great Mother. And this sort of custom is still observed even now; and in November and December, until the “Waxing of the Light,” they bring these things to the priests. For the custom of greeting people by name at the Brumalia is rather recent; and, the truth is, they call them “Kronian festivals”—and because of this the Church turns away from them. And they take place at night, because Kronos is in darkness, having been sent to Tartarus by Zeus—and they mysteriously signify the grain, from its being sown in the ground and thereafter not being seen. And this is quite true, as has been said: The attention to these things goes on at night, such that finally, in truth, the Brumalia are festivals of the subterranean daimones. (John the Lydian, De Mensibus 4.158)

Over time the Dionysiac element of the festival came to predominate, with Balzamon, Tzetzes and Zonaras speaking of it as a time when offerings were made to Dionysos βροῦμος for the good of the crops. Even the Byzantine emperor Kōnstantinos V celebrated an elaborate Bacchic Triumph during the festival, riding into the basilica on the back of an ass. (This iconoclastic emperor gained the unfortunate epithet Kopronymos or “shit-name” for his strained relationship with the clergy.)

Nor was he alone in this. 

Despite attempts in the seventh century by prelates of the Church to condemn and ban Brumalia and related Dionysian festivals:

The so-called Kalends, and what are called Bota and Brumalia, and the full assembly which takes place on the first of March, we wish to be abolished from the life of the faithful. And also the public dances of women, which may do so much harm and mischief. Moreover we drive away from the life of Christians the dances given in the names of those falsely called gods by the Greeks whether of men or women, and which are performed after an ancient and un-Christian fashion; decreeing that no man from this time forth shall be dressed as a woman, nor any woman in the garb suitable to men. Nor shall he assume comic, satyric, or tragic masks; nor may men invoke the name of the execrable Bacchus when they squeeze out the wine in the presses; nor when pouring out wine into jars [to cause a laugh], practicing in ignorance and vanity the things which proceed from the deceit of insanity. Therefore those who in the future attempt any of these things which are written, having obtained knowledge of them, if they be clerics we order them to be deposed, and if laymen to be cut off. (The Council of Trullo Canon 62)

They remained immensely popular with all levels of Byzantine society: 

First, the transformation of the festival itself under Justinian is a sort of case study to test how the basileus and his entourage were trying to abolish all the celebrations connected with the ancient polytheistic calendar. […] An older work of J. R. Crawford and a more recent article by F. Perpillou-Thomas have demonstrated that an ancient Greco-Roman festival, the Bruma, developed gradually into the Byzantine Brumalia, clearly connected with a number of different pagan celebrations taking place around the winter solstice devoted to the chthonian cults. During this holiday each day was associated with a letter from the Greek alphabet. People would celebrate their own Brumalia by hosting guests for dinner; so Justinian’s Brumalia were celebrated on December 2, the tenth day of the festival, which corresponded to the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, iota (for the name Iustinianus). Sources demonstrate that the festival was popular. For example, an inscription from Corinth indicates December as the month of the Brumalia. And in a poem devoted to the months, collected in the Anthologia Palatina, November proclaims: “I bring a pleasant banquet for the name of everyone.” Further, Agathias Scholasticus describes the earthquake that struck Constantinople between December 14 and 23 of 557 as having happened during the coldest part of winter, when the banquets for the names were celebrated. […] Among the goals of Justinian’s policy was the suppression of what remained of paganism. Indeed, a reading of the titula of the Codex devoted to religious matters confirms this view; pagans were criminals and polytheism was a public crime. Justinian made every effort to eliminate all traces of ancient religious practices, These actions must be evaluated within his overall religious policy, which aimed to have Christianity – in its Chalcedonian form – as the only religion of the Byzantine Empire and possibly also of its allies. Sources reveal the difficulties connected with this policy, however, especially when applied to ceremonials and public celebrations. As heir to Greco-Roman traditions, the Byzantine Empire had to deal with a long-lasting and well-articulated series of rituals, festivities, and public manifestations of power. Thus, analysis of the case study of the Brumalia sheds lights on the process of Christianization of the empire, a process that was long and complicated by the political and social aspects of all these practices: religious celebrations of pagan origins were tightly bound to the performance of power and court rituals. Moreover, because of their long tradition, these festivities were the basis of the calendar, and thus they shaped the way people lived their lives. Even when they lost their original meaning and purpose, these rites continued to be celebrated by the citizens of the empire as traditional occasions for hospitality and socializing. Some of these festivals, such as the Brumalia, were simply impossible to eliminate. In such cases, Justinian reshaped and reinvented the meanings and purposes of the feast in order to make it both acceptable from a religious point of view and useful for constructing a common cultural identity throughout the different provinces of the empire. (Roberta Mazza, Choricius of Gaza Oration XIII: Religion and State in the Age of Justinian)

By the twelfth century, however, many of the customs associated with this festival had merged with Kalends and New Year’s celebrations, and Brumalia is only referenced in the past tense. But still, that’s a pretty impressive run, especially if Malalas is correct and the festival was instituted by none other than Rome’s founder! (He isn’t.)