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Donatello, Circle of Italian, 1386/7-1466 The Nativity, c. 1465 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christmas: the winter solstice

The Roman Saturnalia

As we have seen in earlier posts, Christmas occurs on the day of the longest night or near the day of the longest night, the winter solstice (usually Dec. 21 or 22). This must have seemed unnatural in Greco-Roman antiquity.

In pre-Christian Rome, the longest night was celebrated by a reversal of roles. During the Roman Saturnalia, the slave was the master and the master, the slave. I suspect the ethnicity of slaves was the same as that of the slave owners.

Column krater with a komos and three maenads

Column krater with a komos and three maenads, Walters Museum of Art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Greek Kōmos

Red figure and black-figure pottery – kylix – amphora – MaenadsBacchus– phallic symbols

As for the Greeks, their celebration of the longest night was the Kōmos or comus, a drunken and disorderly procession, hence a reversal, order being the norm.[1] The revelers were called komast or kōmastaí. We have inherited magnificent red-figure and black-figure pottery depicting the Kōmos: the krater, the kylix (a rounded drinking bowl), amphoras and other vases or containers. Featured above is a krater, but that particular photograph does not show three Maenads, the wild female followers of Dionysus, or Bacchus, in Roman mythology. However, the image is described as portraying a Kōmos. Below is an amphora clearly depicting a Kōmos.


Kōmos scene, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 560 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 1432) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Birth of Comedy

The Kōmos – the agōn– satyrs – Phallic symbols

Interestingly, the Greek Kōmos, the drunken and disorderly procession mentioned above, developed “into Greek Old comedy of the Dionysian festival in the 6th century BCE.” (See Kōmos, Wikipedia.) Satyrs are associated with satires. There exist other theories concerning the origin of comedy, but etymology points to a relationship, not only between Satyrs and satires, but also between the Kōmos and comedy.

Our best examples of Greek Old Comedy are the comedies of Greek playwright Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BCE)[2]. These feature an agōn,[3] which is, at times, a formal debate, but, at other times, a sham struggle usually opposing a young man and an old man. The old man could regain his youth and win the contest, but the more likely outcome of the agōn was the victory of the young man over the old man. The Kōmos is in fact a fertility ritual demanding a renewal. In the Old comedy of the ancients, even if a woman had not participated in the agōn, she suddenly appeared and a “marriage” was celebrated. Phallic symbols were used (See the image below, red-figure pottery).

Satyr, Colmar Painter

Satyr, by Colmar Painter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Greek Old comedy – Middle Comedy – New Comedy

Ancient Greek comedy is divided into the three above-named periods. The plays of Aristophanes belong to the Old Comedy of ancient Greece. My favourite is Lysistrata (411 BCE), a play in which women deny men sexual privileges until they end the war, the Peloponnesian War (c. 431 BCE – 404 BC). Lysistrata is an ancient expression of our “make love, not war” and the women’s refusal to engage in sexual intercourse is a threat to the outcome of the comedy, comedies being a fertility ritual. Eleven of Aristophanes’ comedies have survived.


Lysistrata (Photo credit: Google Images)

Old Comedy was followed by Middle Comedy (Antiphanes and Alexis, mainly) and New Comedy, the comedies of Menander (c. 341/ 42 – c. 290 BCE), its most important representative. Menander’s comedies were written shortly before the “Roman” comedies of Plautus (c. 254 – 184 BCE) and Terence (c. 195/185 – c. 159 BCE).  According to Britannica, “[t]he Roman predecessors of Plautus in both tragedy and comedy borrowed most of their plots and all of their dramatic techniques from Greece.”[4] In other words, given that Plautus and Terence used techniques borrowed from Greek New Comedy, they may be ancestors to dramatists Shakespeare and Molière, but Greece is the primary source.

It remains, moreover, that the contest between the alazṓn and an eirôn, who are stock characters, took place in Old Comedy. It resembles the agōn. We know the alazṓn opposes the marriage of a young couple. The young lovers, often helped by a supporter or supporters, the eirôn, are able to overcome obstacles to their marriage. The blocking-character, or alazṓn, is defeated. So, if all is well that ends well, Greece seems the fountainhead.

Comedy has not changed significantly over the centuries, not to say millennia.

“Eos is the iconic original from which Christian angels were imagined, for no images were available from the Hebrew tradition, and the Persian angels were unknown in the West.” The image featured above is therefore precious. Eos, a Titaness, is the Greek Goddess of dawn, a counterpart to Rome’s Aurora. Eos’ brother is Helios, god of the sun, and her sister is Selene, goddess of the moon. (See Eos, Wikipedia.)

(See: http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Eos.html.)


The Beatitudes – the Sermon on the Mount – the New Testament

Christmas is therefore rooted in the Roman Saturnalia and the Kōmos. Seasons and human nature dictated festivities on the day of the longest day, Midsummer Day (June 20-21) and on days when night and day were of equal duration, the equinoctial points. Hence a degree of commonality between the raucous Kōmos and Christmas. For Christians, Midnight Mass and the réveillon, a copious and festive meal served, in Quebec, after, not before, Midnight Mass are a reversal. (See Réveillon, Wikipedia.)

Given that Jesus spoke in parables, the “kingdom of heaven” may be metaphorical. Yet, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes in particular, teach a new order. It promotes compassion and honours the humble, the meek, the just, the merciful, the pure, and the peace makers. (See Matthew 5 – 7.) The New Testament is therefore a reversal, but on many occasions Christians have not or would not listen. Judas betrayed Jesus of Nazareth.

Let us end this post, by noting that the longest night heralds the gradual return of light. Light is the norm. But were it not for darkness, light would have no meaning.


Sources and Resources

My kindest regards to all of you and very best wishes for the New Year. I have been too unwell to write, but I hope it will simply pass. I wish you a very happy New Year. 


[1] See Theodore H. Gaster (ed) Francis Macdonald Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1961 [1914]).

[2] “Aristophanes”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 28 dec.. 2014

[3] As in protagonist, antagonist, agony and in other words.

[4] “Plautus”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 déc.. 2014

© Micheline Walker
22 December 2014