Saturday, July 10, 2010

Christmas History: Romans and Greeks

As we continue eastward from our journey, from Egypt and Mesopotamia, we encounter the Romans and the Greeks. Word of the sun-worshipping festivals travels east. In Greece, Zeus defeats his father, Kronos, and the Titans, during the Greek version of Sacaea. But this isn't the main reason for the festivities. There are mischeivous imps, called Kallikantzaroi, roaming the land wreaking havoc on the twelve days of the Sacaea. These imps had a reputation of stealing souls, especially the ones of newly born children. Newborns were wrapped with garlic bundles, and a large log was kept burning for the duration of the festival to keep the imps at bay. The uninvited festive guests are said to sneak into homes through the chimney or, more boldly, by using the front door. And, surprise surprise, Greek families are keen to ward off the gaggles of goblin louts. Some use the legendary precaution of a black-handled knife. Others swear by hanging the lower jaw of a pig behind the front door or inside the chimney. Hanging a tangled strand of flax on the front door tends to flummox the dim-witted Kallikantzaroi, who pause to count the threads, a lengthy task which keeps them busy until sunrise.

Finally, with the Romans. Some Romans followed a sun worshipping religion called Mithraism, after the god Mithras. They combined most of the traditions of their predecessors and added a few new things. First was to adopt the Roman name for Zeus: Jupiter and his father Kronos, became Saturn. To honour Saturn, the festival happening around the winter solistice was called Saturnalia. The festival began at the Romans' temple of Saturn with a ceremony to remove the chain which bound the feet of the god all year long. During this week of festivities all of Rome was practically on holiday. Schools were dismissed and businesses were closed. The Romans decorated their homes with laurel boughs and lit candles to chase away evil spirits. Gifts were exchanged and elaborate parties ensued. The Romans knew how to throw a party and this was the biggest one of the year. As the sun gained power and the days became longer Jupiter's power was regained and Saturn's feet became bound again. The parties died down and things went back to normal. The mystery religion of Mithras only started around the first century C.E., just at the same time another religion was gaining propularity: Christianity.

Next time: Christianity's beginnings

Source: Greek Goblins Run Riot Over Christmas by Danylo Hawaleshka and Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison

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