Christmas in Rome Through the Ages

Christmas in Rome Through the Ages

Is Christmas historical? Dr. Elizabeth Lev is a renowned art historian who has lived in Italy for over 25 years. She teaches art history at The Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome and at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She has written for Magnificat and First Things, and has appeared on television on EWTN and the History Channel as well as working as Vatican analyst for MSNBC. Her books include Rome Pilgrimage: The Station Churches with George Weigel, and she has written books and DVDs for the Vatican Museums. In this exclusive interview with REGINA Magazine, Dr. Lev conducts us back in time to understand the earliest celebrations of Christmas.

REGINA: Was Rome where Christmas was first celebrated?

LEV: The earliest records of Christian celebrations are spotty at best, but it appears that Christmas was first celebrated in Rome at least from the era of Christian legalization.

REGINA: That would be when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized the Faith in 325 AD?

LEV: Yes. However, in art history, we look to images to shed light on the history of the faith, and in Rome, one of our earliest images in the history of Christianity is the Epiphany, the encounter of the Magi with Christ. Oddly enough, this feast was created not in Rome but in Antioch, which had a special devotion to the Incarnation. Eventually, Christmas made its way to Antioch while Epiphany made its way to Rome where it was thoroughly embraced.

REGINA: Why was the Epiphany so important to the early Romans?

LEV: The image of the Magi was so important that if there was to be only one image of Jesus in a fresco cycle, it would be the Epiphany. So in Rome, artistically, this feast took precedence over Christmas as ‘the’ feast of Christ’s birth.

The Roman interest in the Epiphany was two-fold. One, it justified the existence of visual arts. Whereas the Old Testament, marked by an invisible God and “the generation that seeks him, that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”(Psalm 24) prohibited images, God-made-man invited images.

When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then, draw a likeness of His form,” wrote St John Damascene.

Secondly, the Epiphany carried greater resonance in the Hellenized world, as the Greeks and Romans understood through pictures. Gregory the Great said “Hence, and chiefly to the nations (ie Gentiles) a picture is instead of reading…”

The early Romans didn’t know Scripture but they could read images exceptionally well. For this world, the story of the nativity sounded like a local affair, a block party. God born in the middle of now, here in a stable and a few shepherds nearby invited to drop by. How could the Gentiles feel like a part of that? But that these wise, wealthy men, each with his own gift, searching for meaning could also see the Savior — that was Good News.

When we look at the earliest image of the Magi, we see three men in pointed hats, symbolic to the Romans of a foreigner, someone who is not part of the original clan. They move forward, searching and they find their destination, conclusion in the Christ Child, still and stable in Mary’s lap.

They are three different colors, too, to indicate the greatest diversity possible.  Africa, Asia, Europe; old, young and middle aged; or Jewish, Roman or Persian — the point is that everyone finds the answer in Christ.  So Christmas was less about celebrations and more about liturgy, even unto living memory. Masses on Christmas, yes, but gifts were for the Epiphany.

THE NATIVITY APPEARS REGULARLY IN ART AS OF THE 4TH CENTURY, especially as Christianity is legalized and the sites of Christ’s life are commemorated in the Holy Land with churches. Oxen, asses and troughs crowd into the carved reliefs of Christian coffins filling the small spaces with the joyful events of Christ’s birth.

REGINA:  Did the first Christian Roman emperor appropriate the pagan festivals of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus to celebrate the birth of Christ? This is often bandied about as a sort of ‘proof’ that Christmas is unhistorical, a kind of Christian myth.

LEV: The raging debate regarding the conflation of pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Re Sol Invictus is misleading because it create a “sameness” between the ancient religions. Re Sol and Saturn have been proved myths despite all the popular and imperial devotion, and therefore, some reason, so too will Christianity. This is the implication. This massaging of all religions into “sameness” is a luxury of the modern age which should be rejected by Christians first and foremost because it is utterly false.

Superficial similarities, such as the exchange of gifts and the celebration of the winter solstice, do not twins make. St Paul encouraged Christians to see “if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” but he certainly did not give his life for Saturn.

If the Romans exchanged gifts and social roles as a reminder of their good fortune in the natural order and if the end of early darkness and the beginning of longer light brought joy to people, why should Christians combat this human desire for thankfulness and truth?

The early Christians, however, knew full well that they worshipped a God who was not like any other in the imperial pantheon. For they and only they, the followers of Christ, lost their jobs, were imprisoned or even thrown to the beasts in the arena for their beliefs. No one mocked Saturn, no one outlawed Re Sol, but Christ was terrifying to the Romans and they did everything in their power to eradicate this simple carpenter from Nazareth and his followers.

The emperor gave no feasts at all in the early church so we cannot look to Constantine as the author of Christmas, and indeed, since Sol Invictus was only made official by Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, I think given the growing popularity of Christianity, who is to say the emperor didn’t take the date from the Christians?

Interior of the Basilica of Our lady of Pompeii, early 20th century

DR ELIZABETH LEV: We see the awareness of Christian uniqueness already in our early Christian churches: they were built large to include all, not like the exclusive temples and cult cells of the other beliefs. They are flooded with light as opposed to the “strongholds of darkness” as Tertullian described pagan worship spaces. They offered direction, a people gathered together to journey towards Christ. 

REGINA: How about the date of December 25? Some assert that the early Church posited this date from concepts in Judaism about the time of the deaths of prophets being linked to their conception or birth.

DR LEV: The date appears to have been reasoned out from the Jesus’ death and resurrection – the perfect and closed cycles of numbers seems to have motivated the Annunciation to be the March 25th calculated as the day Jesus died and then 9 months forward from that. It appears that some have calculated the date to April 3 or April 7, but given how erratic we are in the Mediterranean with time, it could well be a little off.

REGINA: What was an early Christian celebration of Christmas like in Rome?

LEV: We know virtually nothing about the Christmas celebrations in the years before legalization as there are no documents. There was a development of the Christmas liturgy in the first centuries after legalization as St Mary Major, the glorious edifice built in 432 AD to celebrate Mary as the “God-Bearer” became the station church for the first Papal Mass of Christmas. Ironically in the dazzling decorative mosaics over the triumphal arch there are scenes of the Annunciation, the Presentation at the Temple and the Epiphany, but no image of the Nativity.

Di Cambio’s Nativity, St Mary Major

LEV: The Middle Ages saw the pomp increase around Christmas celebrations, although the period of Advent was considered a penitential period like Lent. The Midnight Mass came to dominate liturgical celebrations, and the Nativity scenes arrived, one of the earliest carved by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1289 for St Mary Major, which had already received the relic of Christ’s crib in the seventh century.

The first page of Gaudete in the original version of the Piae Cantiones, Finnish National Library
The first page of Gaudete in the original version of the Piae Cantiones, Finnish National Library

REGINA: What about Christmas in the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation?

LEV: The Renaissance saw the surge in musical arrangements for Christmas. As aristocratic households kept greater and grander choirs, the delights for the ears, eyes and palette grew. The liturgies gave way to great and often decadent feasts, but amid the many gilt and elaborate paintings of the era, the paintings of the Nativity maintained a sobriety befitting the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth.

The Counter-reform, in reaction to the protestant denominations (such as the Calvinists and Puritans) that had removed Christmas from their calendars, made a point of celebrating the feast with greater solemnity. Celebrations became more public, albeit more subdued, and more altars were dedicated to the Nativity upholding the ancient Roman tradition of honoring the birth of Christ in the face of the then-current trend of dismissing it.

REGINA:  As the Faith fades in modern Italy, how would you characterize Romans celebrating Christmas today?

LEV: Italians, unlike many other countries, make big and public displays over Christmas. While indeed, fewer Italians go to Mass than ever before and many young people don’t consider themselves religious, the faith in Italy remains in the background, like a foundation that people don’t even realize they are standing on. Nativity scenes appear in the most un-expected places –on bridges, in alleys and even in the Roman trash collector’s offices, without fear of lawsuits. Romans wish each other a Buon Natale a ‘Good Christmas’ without tying themselves up into politically correct knots – it’s Christ’s birthday, why not just say it? Granted if it is only for a day out of the year, the churches are packed, as are the confessionals. Despite modern secularism and consumerism, Christmas remains a day for food, family and faith.

The Truth of the Art: Elizabeth Lev at TEDxViadellaConciliazione

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian in Rome. She engineered a formative course on faith and art for the Vatican Museums in response to a request from Pope Benedict XVI, and collaborated with the Museum on a television series for EWTN about sacred art in the Vatican collections. Lev moved from the US to Italy to do her doctoral work. Lev’s study of St. Peter’s Basilica led her to renew her Catholic faith, which she had previously renounced. Her experience studying and teaching art has led her to believe that when we encounter something beautiful we are made vulnerable and opened to the truth; but if we are not afraid of beauty, it ultimately leads us out of ourselves to something great.

Featured Photo: The earliest image of the Magi is found in Rome, from the third century. Painted in the catacombs of Priscilla, it is striking for its depth of meaning.

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