December 21, 2020

The Penthekti Ecumenical Synod, Brumalia and the Origins of the Forty-Day Period of Preparation Before Christmas

By George D. Panagopoulos,
Professor of Dogmatics at the 
University Ecclesiastical Academy of Vella in Ioannina

Anyone who reads the 62nd canon of the Penthekti Ecumenical Synod in Trullo (692) will be confronted with a manifestation of the struggle of the Orthodox Catholic Church against the survival of popular celebrations of a pagan nature. More specifically, the banning of the festivals of "Bota", "Kalends" and "Brumalia".

Because the question of this last celebration is relevant, since we have just gone through the period of the year during which its celebration took place in antiquity and the Middle Ages, I will deal with what follows with the clarification of the term "brumalia" and the accompanying calendar issues, saving the terms "kalends" and "bota" to deal with in the near future.

As Phaidon Koukoules informs us in the monumental encyclopedia of Byzantine civilization that he gave us (Byzantine Life and Culture, Volume II, 25-29), Brumalia is a survival of the ancient Roman festival of bruma, which took place in December, as well as Saturnalia (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Kronion, a kind of "carnival" festival) with which it was closely associated.

The Romans called bruma the shortest day of the year, which coincided with the winter solstice (hence its paretymology by John Lydos, who explains its origin from the Greek words βραχὺ ἦμαρ = short day).

With the same word, however, was meant the time period that begins on November 24 and ends on December 24 or 25, a day on which, as is well known, they celebrated the birth of the invincible sun (Deus sol invictus), which had been introduced in Rome by Emperor Aurelian.

Around the fourth century, of course, the Christians of the western part of the empire and especially of Rome celebrated on the same day the incarnation of the Word of God, the noetic Sun of righteousness, thus giving an appropriate answer to the feast celebrated by the pagans.

Eastern Christians, who celebrated the Nativity of Christ with Theophany on January 6 and began to adopt only gradually, from the end of the fourth century, the birth of the noetic Sun of righteousness Christ on December 25, also knew about Brumalia (feast of bruma).

But for the Byzantines, Brumalia began on November 24th and ended on December 17th (a day when, according to the current custom of ecclesiastical fasting before Christmas, the consuming of fish ceases until the eponymous day).

In fact, because the interval between these two dates is equal to 24 days, they connected each day with a letter of the Greek alphabet, so those whose name began with the letter of the day celebrated their personal "Brumalia"! In this context, the habit of celebrating the "Royal Brumalia", ie of the emperor, was developed.

As Phaidon Koukoules informs us, the celebration of Brumalia is testified in the sixth century by John Lydos and Malalas, while for the later times the relevant testimonies of the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (10th century) and the poet Christopher of Mytilene (11th century) are enlightening.

In this context, the pastoral vigilance of the Church is extremely persuasive that the ecclesiastical authorities were not satisfied with the regular prohibitions of the pagan festivals; at the same time they pedagogically cultivated the ground for their transcendence. In other words, I believe that the extension of the Christmas fast, so that from its initially short duration to extend to forty days, has contributed significantly to the formation of a spiritual climate of watchfulness and devotion that is least compatible with the "carnival" nature of the feast of Brumalia and whatever that entailed.

The forty-day fast was based on the model of Great Lent and was introduced in the seventh century, around the end of when the Penthekti Ecumenical Synod met.

In addition, the celebration of Christmas begins to acquire an ever-expanding preparatory period, with the result that, finally, the whole month of December and the last ten days of November acquire a pre-festive character (see the informative report by John Fountoulis, Λογική λατρεία, Athens 1984, 332-333.).

The premise is reasonable: The development of the pre-festive Christmas period and the expansion of ascetic preparation (fasting) should probably be considered with the regular ban on Brumalia from the Penthekti Ecumenical Synod as one aspect of the multifaceted and comprehensive pastoral care in which the "new" had certainly prevailed, but the "old" still crept around and eroded the attempt of "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).


I should note that in modern Italian the word bruma, in addition to the winter solstice, also means winter fog.

This significance clearly refers to the calendar period of Roman Brumalia that we saw, and should have been received by the French. (The French word brume also gave the name of the second month of the French revolutionary calendar Brumaire, which corresponded to the period between 22-24 October and 20-22 November.

As is well known, in the context of the renaming of all the months of the year, the protagonists of the revolution - the "iconoclast" Jacobins - set as a criterion of the new "pagan" naming a natural or climatic fact that was specific to each of the months.

The month of Brumaire will also be immortalized due to the coup of Napoleon in 1799 against the Directorate and, subsequently, thanks to Karl Marx, who will include him in the title of a well-known text.)

Source: Translation by John Sanidopoulos.

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 AD 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 Balsamon, 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 Constantine 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 Copronymos or “dung-named” 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. (Penthekti Ecumenical Synod, 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.