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The Adoration of the Magi

The Adoration of the Magi, a frescoBasilica of St. Francis of Assisi by Giotto, c. 1831-32 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paganism & Christianity

As you all know, early Christians transformed Pagan feasts into Christian feasts. It had to do with luminosity, the degree of brightness. Christmas is celebrated on or near the longest night of the year: the Winter solstice.

The Roman Saturnalia

It has long seemed somewhat peculiar that the night should be as long as day. In fact, it has been perceived as a kind of inversion. At that time of the year, Romans therefore celebrated Saturn, “a god of agriculture, but in classical times identified with the Greek Cronus deposed by his son Zeus.”[i] Saturn, as in Saturday, is also the name of a planet.

Traditionally, beginning on Christmas day, the first of the twelve days of Christmas, many things were inverted or reversed, as in the Roman Saturnalia:

“During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Some also have an echo in modern-day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or ‘Dame’ is played by a man.”[ii]

The Greek Kōmos

As for ancient Greece, during that period of the year, a Kōmosor  ritualistic drunken procession,” was performed by revelers out of a which grew Ancient Greek Comedy. Doubts subsist as to the origin of comedy, but it appears to be the Kōmos. (See Kōmos, Wikipedia)

Four Gentlemen and Pierrot, by Claude Gillot (Wikimedia)

Four Commedia dell’arte Figures by Claude Gillot (French; 1673 – 1722) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Karel Dujardin, Commedia dell'Arte show, 1657 (Louvre).

Karel Dujardin (Dutch; 1622 – 1678), Commedia dell’arte show, 1657 (Louvre). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Comedy is a reversal. The wise old man (the senex) is transformed into a senex iratus called alazôn in theatre of ancient Greece, the heavy father intent on marrying his daughter, or son, to a person he has chosen. At the end of the comedy, after a series of péripéties (twists and turns), the young couple, assisted by the eirôn, overcome the blocking character, the senex iratus or alazôn, and may marry.

Such is the basic plot of the commedia dell’arte, improvised plays on the same plot, called canevas in French. In the commedia dell’ arte, the characters are stock characters or archetypes. Seventeenth-century French dramatist Molière (15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673) wrote    farces, short plays such as the Précieuses ridicules (The Pretentious Young Ladies), using the plot of the deceiver deceived or trompeur trompé. However, the Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Middle-Class Gentleman), a five-act comédie-ballet, is also built on the trompeur trompé formula: a reversal. 

William Shakespeare‘s (26 April 1564 [baptised] – 23 April 1616) Twelfth Night, a comedy, was written to be performed on the eve (5 January) of Epiphany (6 January), the most festive of the twelve days of Christmas: its culmination. Twelfth Night ushers in the carnival season, which begins on 7 January and ends on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi gras, the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (le carême).

Peter Paul Rubens' Death of Semele, caused by

Peter Paul Rubens‘ Death of Semele, caused by the theophany of Zeus [Saturn] without a mortal disguise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epiphany and Theophany

Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January in the Western church and it commemorates the arrival in Bethlehem of the Magi (the wise men): Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar. They came from the east bearing gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase of Fable, “the Epiphany [is] the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles [non-Jewish] as represented by the Magi[.]”[iii] The word epiphany is also used to denote a moment of revelation.

As for Theophany, as its name suggests (theo = god), it is a revelation of the divine. Theophanies are an ancient phenomenon. Many occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic dating back to the 18th century BCE. The word theophany is the origin of the name Tiffany.


Epiphany, a joyous feast, is also called la fête des Rois (FR), the feast of the Kings. In Northern France, one eats the galette des Rois. But in Southern France, the galette is a real cake or a brioche, the gâteau des Rois. In the French Canada of my youth, mothers baked a cake (un gâteau) in which a pea (une fève) had been inserted. The person whose piece of cake contained the pea was crowned King or Queen. The galette des Rois is made of flaky paste (pâte feuilletée) filled with almond paste (frangipane), candied fruit, creams and chocolate. (See gâteau des Rois and galette des Rois, Wikipedia.)

During the Roman Saturnalia, the slave who ate the piece of galette or cake containing the pea (black or white) became the master for one day. However, merriment went further than this one reversal. Everything was upside-down: a mundus inversus.

Now, if Epiphany and Theophany, the twelfth day of Christmas, date back to the beginning of the written word, Mesopotamia (Sumer), the raucous events of the Roman Saturnalia and the Greek kōmos have survived and also characterize the carnival season, which, as noted above, begins on 7 January, the day after Epiphany (Western Church) or Theophany (Eastern Church).

Le Gâteau des Rois, par Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774 (musée Fabre).

Le Gâteau des Rois by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774 (French; 21 August 1725 – 4 March 1805) (Courtesy musée Fabre).

Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) by David Teniers c. 1634-1640

Carnival (The King Drinks) by David Teniers, c. 1634-1640 (Flemish; 15 December 1610 – 25 April 1690) (Photo credit: WikiArt.org)


Therefore, we have seen once again that the seasons, or the degree of luminosity (brightness), have long dictated the timing of feasts, be they Pagan (Roman, Greek and earlier) or Christian. Christmastide is the season during which, for one day, night (darkness) is longer than the day or (brightness), a world upside-down. It is the day of the longest night. In 2013, the Winter solstice occurred on 21 December. In 2015, it occurs on 22 December.

Furthermore, the Christian tradition has preserved elements of the Roman Saturnalia, honouring Saturn. It has a considerably Pagan side. Twelfth Night is a moment of unabashed revelry rooted in the Roman Saturnalia and the Greek Kōmos, the probable birthplace of comedy, the wise old man becomes a fool, the senex iratus.

We have also seen the importance of the stars and planets. The Kings of Orient are guided by a star and the Roman Saturnalia is a celebration of Saturn (as in Saturday), the above-mentioned god of agriculture and a planet.

In short, the humble calendar remains one of our most precious artifacts.

We have now entered Carnival Season, a season we have not forgotten.  

A Happy New Year to all of you.


Sources and Resources

[i] The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Oxford, 2000).

[ii] Religion Facts : http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/holidays/twelfth_night.htm

[iii] The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Oxford, 2000).

Antonio Vivaldi (4 March 1678 – 28 July 1741)
The Seasons (Winter)
Commedia dell'arte, by Claude Gillot

Commedia dell’arte by Claude Gillot

© Micheline Walker
7 January 2014