Holydaze – the Origins of the Holiday Season Part 3

by | Dec 21, 2020

hol·i·day  /ˈhäləˌdā/

Origin: Old English hāligdæg ‘holy day’

Pagan Midwinter’s Festivals

The second century theologian Tertullian anticipates
and heralds Spurgeon’s sentiment almost 1600 years earlier in the following
quote. It’s a long and deep statement, so you may need to read it a couple of
times to pick up on his wit. I have taken the liberty to copy excerpts from the
work since copying the whole 3 chapters would be cumbersome to include, but I
highly recommend you find and read it at your leisure if possible. Although he
makes some great assertions, I must point out that his statement is not without
some error. I have added a couple of notes in [black brackets] correcting these errors. You will find error in all the early
church father’s writings. For the sake of continuity, let’s not dwell on those
errors, but rather focus on the topic at hand, which pertains to the holidays
he is referring to.


If you wish to be the Lord’s disciple, it is necessary you
“take your cross, and follow the Lord:” your cross; that is, your own straits
and tortures, or your body only, which is after the manner of a cross. Parents,
wives, children, will have to be left behind, for God’s sake. Do you hesitate
about arts, and trades, and about professions likewise, for the sake of
children and parents? Even there was it demonstrated to us, that both “dear
pledges,” and handicrafts, and trades, are to be quite left behind for the
Lord’s sake; while James and John, called by the Lord, do leave quite behind
both father and ship; while Matthew is roused up from the toll-booth; while
even burying a father was too tardy a business for faith. None of them whom the
Lord chose to Him said, “I have no means to live.” Faith fears not famine. It
knows, likewise, that hunger is no less to be contemned by it for God’s sake,
than every kind of death. It has learnt not to respect life; how much more
food? [You ask] “How many have fulfilled these conditions?” But what with men
is difficult, with God is easy. Let us, however, comfort ourselves about the
gentleness and clemency of God in such wise, as not to indulge our
“necessities” up to the point of affinities with idolatry, but to avoid even
from afar every breath of it, as of a pestilence. [And this] not merely in the
cases forementioned, but in the universal series of human superstition; whether
appropriated to its gods, or to the defunct, or to kings, as pertaining to the
selfsame unclean spirits, sometimes through sacrifices and priesthoods,
sometimes through spectacles and the like, sometimes through holy-days.


In this place must be handled the subject of holidays and
other extraordinary solemnities, which we accord sometimes to our wantonness,
sometimes to our timidity, in opposition to the common faith and Discipline.
The first point, indeed, on which I shall join issue is this: whether a servant
of God ought to share with the very nations themselves in matters of his kind,
either in dress, or in food, or in any other kind of their gladness. “To
rejoice with the rejoicing, and grieve with the grieving,” is said about
brethren by the apostle when exhorting to unanimity. But, for these purposes,
“There is nought of communion between light and darkness,” between life and
death or else we rescind what is written, “The world shall rejoice, but ye
shall grieve. If we rejoice with the world, there is reason to fear that with
the world we shall grieve too. But when the world rejoices, let us grieve; and
when the world afterward grieves, we shall rejoice.

If you are not unknown to be a Christian, you are tempted, and
you act as if you were not a Christian against your neighbour’s conscience; if,
however, you shall be disguised withal, you are the slave of the temptation. At
all events, whether in the latter or the former way, you are guilty of being
“ashamed of God.” But “whosoever shall be ashamed of Me in the presence of men,
of him will I too be ashamed,” says He, “in the presence of my Father who is in
the heavens.


But, however, the majority (of Christians) have by this time
induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable if at any time they do
what the heathen do, for fear “the Name be blasphemed.” Now the blasphemy which
must quite be shunned by us in every way is, I take it, this: If any of us lead
a heathen into blasphemy with good cause, either by fraud, or by injury, or by
contumely, or any other matter of worthy complaint, in which “the Name” is
deservedly impugned, so that the Lord, too, be deservedly angry. Else, if of
all blasphemy it has been said, “By your means My Name is blasphemed,” we all
perish at once; since the whole circus, with no desert of ours, assails “the
Name” with wicked suffrages. Let us cease (to be Christians) and it will not be
blasphemed! On the contrary, while we are, let it be blasphemed: in the
observance, not the overstepping, of discipline; while we are being approved,
not while we are being reprobated. Oh blasphemy, bordering on martyrdom, which
now attests me to be a Christian, while for that very account it detests me!
The cursing of well-maintained Discipline is a blessing of the Name. “If,” says
he, “I wished to please men, I should not be Christ’s servant.” But the same
apostle elsewhere bids us take care to please all: “As I,” he says, “please all
by all means.” No doubt he used to please them by celebrating the Saturnalia and
New-year’s day! [Was it so] or was it by moderation and patience? by gravity,
by kindness, by integrity? In like manner, when he is saying, “I have become
all things to all, that I may gain all,” does he mean “to idolaters an
idolater?” “to heathens a heathen?” “to the worldly worldly?” But albeit he
does not prohibit us from having our conversation with idolaters and
adulterers, and the other criminals, saying, “Otherwise ye would go out from
the world,” of course he does not so slacken those reins of conversation that,
since it is necessary for us both to live and to mingle with sinners, we may be
able to sin with them too. Where there is the intercourse of life, which the
apostle concedes, there is sinning, which no one permits. To live with heathens
is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with
them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul,
not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. [Man does not possess the world as of yet. It has not been
taken from the “ruler of this age,” who is Satan. See 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John
5:19, Ephesians 2:2. It is important to understand that Adam surrendered to the
beast nature and the dominion given him was usurped by Satan for the duration
of this entire age. Yahshua’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom within His saints,
yet the earth has been declared His for the age to come.] But if we
have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more
wicked to celebrate them among brethren! Who can maintain or defend this? The
Holy Spirit upbraids the Jews with their holy-days. “Your Sabbaths, and new
moons, and ceremonies,” says He, “My soul hateth.” By us, to whom Sabbaths are
strange, and the new moons and festivals formerly beloved by God, the
Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals Note the word is Brumae in the Latin. We’ll come back
to this later.
 and Matronalia are frequented—presents come and
go—New-year’s gifts—games join their noise—banquets join their din! Oh better
fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the
Christians for itself! Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even it they had
known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they
should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be
heathens! If any indulgence is to be granted to the flesh, you have it. I will
not say your own days, but more too; for to the heathens each festive day
occurs but once annually: you have a festive day every eighth day [I would cut out the word “eighth” because we are not living
in the eighth day. We haven’t even reached the 7th day yet, which is what the
Sabbath represents – see Hebrews 4. Churches were meeting on Sunday, the
first day of the week.].Call out the individual
solemnities of the nations, and set them out into a row, they will not be able
to make up a Pentecost.

Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter XIV, c. 190 AD

There is so much to break down
here, but I will focus more on the last chapter. First, he was warning
Christians about leading heathens into blasphemy “with good cause” and in the
process assailing the Name with wicked suffrages. This is our indicator that
Christians were trying to win pagans into the fold by appealing to the Roman
cultural practices they were accustomed to. Toward the end he tells them that
they are not apprehensive to look like pagans, but pagans are apprehensive to
look like Christians. He calls what Christians were doing worldly, idolatry and

Paul says in Galatians 4:8-11:

But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those
which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are
known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements,
to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and
seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.

In other words, these Greeks
served Grecco-Roman gods by observing days, months seasons and years before
they became Christians, and now, after they have become Christians they are
adopting Jewish holy days, which Paul is equating to their former holidays,
calling them “weak and beggarly elements.” Paul is discouraging this sort of behavior,
which is what Tertullian is reiterating in his own words. Evidently, Greek
Christians were returning to some of their former ways while trying to maintain
their Christian identity.

and Brumalia

All the festivals called out by
Tertullian were Roman pagan holidays. Saturnalia was celebrated at the end of
December around the time of the Winter Solstice, somewhere between December 17th
and 23rd. Brumalia is the
holiday season which starts on November 24th and continues to the
end of the week-long holiday of Saturnalia. Sometime between 125 and 180 AD
Lucian wrote the following in his writing, Saturnalia, from the
perspective of the god Saturn:

Mine (Saturn) is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with,
it only lasts a week;
that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my
week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk,
noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing
naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in
icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things,
wealth and gold and such, Zeus distributes as he will.

… this festive season, when ’tis lawful to be drunken, and
slaves have license to revile their lords…

John Lydus wrote in De
(The Months), c. 550 AD:

The Romans customarily divided their citizenry into three
[groups] and distinguished those who were suitable for arms, those [who were
suitable] for farming, and those [who were suitable] for hunting; and the
season of winter brings an end to these [pursuits]. For in it, neither do they
arm themselves, nor do they practice farming, because of the season’s cold and
the shortness of the days — and hence in the old days they named it bruma,
meaning “short day.” And Brumalia means “winter festivals”;
so at that time, until the Waxing of the Light, ceasing from work, the Romans
would greet each other with words of good omen at night, saying in their
ancestral tongue, “Vives annos” — that is, “Live for
years.” And the farming people would
slaughter pigs for the worship of Cronus and Demeter — and hence even now the
“Pig-Slaughter” is observed in December
. And the vine-dressers
would sacrifice goats in honor of Dionysus — 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
“Cronian festivals” — and because of this the Church turns away from them. And they take
place at night, because Cronus 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 daemones.

Is it not too coincidental that
the meat of choice for Christmas is a ham roast? Do these descriptions not
resemble the holiday season as we celebrate it today, ie; taking off of work,
wishing people a happy new year, banquets, festivities, etc? All these things
are the types of spectacles Tertullian mentioned. Is this not a “flood of

Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm
yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has
ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the
flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough
of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in
lewdness (license of sensual abandon), lusts (impulsive craving), drunkenness,
revelries (carousing, social binges), drinking parties, and abominable
idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with
them in the same flood of dissipation (ἀνάχυσιν, anachysin – excessive outpouring), speaking evil of you.
1 Peter 4:1–4

Also note that Cronos and
Saturn were the same god to the Greeks and Romans. They were syncretized
together because the Greeks believed that all other cultures worshipped the
same gods as they did, only under different names. They made efforts to draw
parallels wherever possible. For this reason, Saturnalia was also known as the
Cronian Festival.

(Continued on Next Blog…)
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