The Syrus Code: Deciphering the Origins of Christmas, or Not

Richard Cohen's recent book Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Light (Simon & Schuster) has been excerpted in the New York Times and hailed as "dazzling" by a local reviewer in the Age and elsewhere.

Part of "Syrus" text, as cited by K-A. Credner in 1833
Both Peter Temple's Age review and Cohen's own New York Times article cite an odd quotation from "the Christian scribe Syrus" (or "the Christian commentator Syrus"), to this effect:
"It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day".

Note the ellipsis, and the point at which the quote from "Syrus" ends. As presented, it implies that Christmas was created to take over the date and the festivities of the cult of Sol Invictus.

But who is the mysterious "Syrus"?

Those with even middle-school Latin will see this isn't necessarily a name at all, but a descriptive epithet referring to someone's nationality. "Syrus" means a Syrian. Even if this had been someone from the ancient world known as "X the Syrian", like the Church Father Ephrem Syrus, using the name "Syrus" could be a clanger along the lines Dan Brown calling Leonardo da Vinci "Da Vinci" (unfortunately Temple does just this in the same Age review). Of course we may have to put up with future historians citing the authority "Your name here" who filled out some form or other...

In reality the writer was indeed a Syrian, but not the famous Ephrem, and not a particularly ancient source. And more importantly, he didn't say what Cohen has him say.

The passage quoted above is actually a note written by an otherwise-unknown twelfth-century scribe in the margins of a manuscript of the slightly earlier author Dionysius (James) Bar Salibi, 12th century bishop of Amida (some other citations of this text attribute the quote to Dionysius himself, which might be more interesting but is not the case).

The text, written in Syriac, was first published in the 18th century in a remarkable collection of eastern Christian manuscript material from the medieval period by Lebanese scholar Joseph Assemani, the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementina-Vaticana, along with Latin translations.

This edition of Dionysius Bar-Salibi's text included the marginal notes from the manuscript; so the unknown annotator became the mythical "Syrus" through citation of Assemani's edition of the work, or rather of his Latin translations. For instance the influential article "De Natalitiorum Christi" by German scholar Karl-August Credner in the Zeitschrift für die historische Theologie  of 1833 refers to our marginal scribe as "auctor quidam Syrus" which means just "some Syrian author". This was probably the real birth (or at least conception) of "Syrus", who was then reared to fantastical adulthood in awkward subsequent citations of Credner's article. So for instance Gaston Halsberghe's 1972 study The Cult of Sol Invictus (Brill, 1972) refers to a certain "Scriptor Syrus" (still literally "a Syrian writer", but with capital initials sounding now like a name, or even the holder of some dignity or office). It was only a short step to Cohen's presentation of the work of "Syrus".

So one part of the mystery is solved; "Syrus" is an otherwise unknown medieval scribe offering a gratuitous opinion in the margins of Bishop Dionysius' treatise. Yes, the marginal scribbler was of course a "scribe" and a "commentator". But he wasn't an ancient observer at all;  comment on fourth-century events from the twelfth century is evidence for twelfth-century opinions, not fourth-century history.

But what did he say anyway? The quote provided by Cohen implies that "Syrus" had revealed how Christmas was invented to exploit the possibilities offered by the cult of Sol Invictus. In full, "Syrus" actually said something very different:
The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of the Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day. Even Christians were participants in these rites and ceremonies. When, therefore, the teachers of the Church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, they established a plan.  The true Natal feast would be celebrated on this day, and Epiphany on January 6th...
"Syrus" was not in fact referring to the origins of Christmas at all, but to a change of its date from January 6 to December 25. "Syrus" seems not to have known that there were two different dates for Christmas even when it was first celebrated, December 25th predominantly in the western Mediterranean, and January 6th in the East. An easterner himself - from a tradition which even today celebrates Christmas on January 6th - he was seeking to explain the "oddity" of western tradition.

But here for the first time we know of, "Syrus" did strike upon the idea that has become a sort of Wiki-orthodoxy: that the December date was arbitrarily, or cunningly, hit upon only to exploit the existing festive associations of an existing solar festival.

Not that "Syrus" was completely off the mark. Of course the celebration of Christmas was encouraged by the associations with existing feasts, and Christians may have borrowed from them, although these borrowings are not nearly as clear-cut as many assume; evidence for a feast of Sol Invictus at Rome has recently been challenged convincingly. In any case, while "Syrus" had imagined the Westerners as innovators, and the Easterners as true conservatives, in fact neither date is explained by his own ingenuity or its more recent successors, since both dates for Jesus' birth were older than our evidence for the actual liturgical feast of Christmas. On that issue, see further here.

So the odd story of the "Syrus Code" illustrates the sheer momentum of ideas that suit. This isn't quite Dan Brown stuff, but it's closer than we or Richard Cohen might want to admit. "Syrus", having made it into the New York Times and the Melbourne Age, now has a new lease of life; he is being bought coffee in Brooklyn and Brunswick, even as we speak, and his semi-informed thoughts about the calendar of a Church that was as ancient and alien to him as he is to us have been invested with glib authority.

The supposed hypocrisy or cynicism of Christian or Constantinian or Catholic (or "your prejudice here") appropriation of the pagan and corruption of the pristine Christian isn't always that simple. Christmas is a complex business at the best of times; its history, as well as its present celebration, may challenge and surprise us.

Comments

  1. Anonymous5:45 pm

    Well done Andrew. Nothing like facts and scholarship to spoil a good prejudice.
    Bruce

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  2. Anonymous3:45 am

    This is fascinating. I am wondering...was the belief that Christmas Day was appropriated from the Sol Invictus cult based on more than the writings of "Syrus"? Was there any other corroborating evidence?
    Kind regards,
    Ruth McFarlane

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  3. One of the pleasures of visiting Rome in January is to witness Befana. She is variously a saint, an old woman, or a witch who delivers presents to children on the eve of Epiphany. Exactly where Befana came from befuddles the experts, with some saying her name is a corruption of the word Epiphany itself, others that she is descended from a pagan winter goddess. She seems to be the Italian folk equivalent of Santa Claus, though one wonders what the good people of Bari think of that, Saint Nicholas being their main man. It reminds us though that even in contemporary Catholic Italy, Epiphany is the time when presents are exchanged. Epiphany is a public holiday in Italy. Meanwhile at the Vatican and elsewhere we see big evidence of the 25th of December as something out of the ordinary, with mighty pine trees covered in lights in St Peter’s Square, direct cultural imports from across the alps. More amazing are the whopper recreations of the nativity scene in temporary houses that are literally as large as some average Australian suburban dwellings, standing in Roman squares. I saw one such presepi, as the Neapolitans call them, in a side chapel of St Peter’s Basilica, which just reminds us of just how huge that building is. One thing though is quite clear from all of this. In 2011, Christmas and Epiphany are the main events and Romans are interested in being inclusive about their celebration.

    -- Philip Harvey

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  4. Anonymous12:44 pm

    Very useful stuff on "Syrus". Thank you.

    Followed your link for more information and found that the author commits the common error of assuming that Aurelian was responsible for placing a festival on December 25th. There is actually no evidence for this particular attribution, I don't know if you have read Hijmans (2009) on this issue. He concludes that the "Games of the Sun" inaugurated by Aurelian are far more likely to be those found in October.

    I also doubt his assertion that festivals of the Solstice were common in Northern Europe as I know of none. Obviously they would not have been on December 25th in particular as this would have required people to be using the Roman solar calendar, rather than the lunar one most people were using.

    - David

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