November 24 – The Brumalia: The Ancient Roman Winter Fest

Daylight is certainly getting shorter these days, and to commemorate it is the Brumalia, the Festival of Shortening Days. This was not a single feast day, but rather a festival period beginning on November 24 and lasting until the Saturnalia on December 17 (1). You might call it an ancient Roman “Winter Fest”.

“Bruma” was the name that the Romans gave to the Winter Solstice, as Marcus Terentius Varro explains: “Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissumus, ‘shortest’” (2). Therefore, Brumalia means “the Festival of Bruma” or “the Festival of Shortening Days”. On the first day of the Brumalia period, offerings were made to Ceres and Bacchus, and prophecies were made as to whether the coming Winter would be good or bad.

Incidentally, the name Bruma survives nowadays in the term “brumation”, which is a relaxed sluggish state that cold-blooded animals like reptiles go into when subjected to cold temperatures. The term is a reference to the coldness of Winter and the shortened days that come with that season.

Horace Wetherill Wright says that offerings were made to both Ceres and Bacchus (the names are given in the source as Demeter and Dionysus, the Greek names of these gods), but no further information is given as to the nature of these offerings (3). However, we can make some assumptions based upon other sacrificial rites which were offered to these deities on other feast days. Sacrifices which were commonly given to the agriculture goddess Ceres were pigs, olive oil, and grain, while those which were made in honor of the wine god Bacchus consisted of goats, wine, and honey cakes.

According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, the reason why goats were sacrificed to Bacchus was a tradition of revenge. One day, a grape farmer saw a goat chewing on his vines, and decided he would get payback by catching that goat and offering it as a sacrifice to the wine god. In the words of Ovid, “You should have spared the vine-shoots, he-goat. Watching a goat nibbling a vine, someone once vented their indignation in these words: ‘Gnaw the vine, goat! But when you stand at the altar, there’ll be something from it to sprinkle on your horns’. Truth followed: Bacchus, your enemy is given you to punish, and sprinkled wine flows over its horns” (4).

On a somewhat lighter note, honey and honey cakes were traditionally offered to Bacchus because, according to Roman myth, he had discovered honey. In the words of Ovid, “Honey-cakes are baked for the god [Bacchus], because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey” (5). Of the two deities which were propitiated on November 24, it appears that Bacchus took higher importance. In fact, Brumas (or variations of that name) was one of the many appellations of the wine god (6).

One wonders if the Romans decorated their homes and their public buildings during this festive period the way that so many people do during the modern-day holiday season. It seems that everywhere you look from Thanksgiving to December, there are Christmas trees, holly wreaths, and poinsettia plants. As far back as the Renaissance and possibly earlier, this symbolic “re-greening” of one’s house carried on. In England during the Tudor Dynasty, people decorated the inside of their homes as well as their local churches with holly, ivy, bay, and rosemary. These green shrubs were seen as preserving life during the lifelessness of Winter. It’s also thanks to this ritual that we have two of our most well-known Christmas carols: “Deck the Halls” and “The Holly and the Ivy” (8). Did the Romans do anything similar? Possibly. According to William Burder and Joel Parker, “The fir, the ivy, the fig, and the pine, were consecrated to Bacchus, and goats were sacrificed to him” (7). It is therefore quite possible that the Romans would have decorated their homes with boughs of fir, pine, and ivy, with figs consumed with just as much relish as fire-roasted chestnuts.

Each day had a letter of the Greek alphabet allocated to it, and it was customary for a person to hold a banquet for their friends on the day which was marked with the first letter of their name (9). One wonders if the first day of the festivities had all A-themed events, and so forth as the festive period continued.

In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which had a very large Greek-speaking population, the Brumalia was known as the Ambrosiana. The name comes from ambrosia, the term that was given to the special food which only gods ate, which was said to bestow immortality upon anyone who consumed it (10).

Even into Christian times, this festival continued to be celebrated. In the Byzantine Empire during the 6th Century AD, the Brumalia was still celebrated each year, though possibly without the sacrifices to the pagan gods Ceres and Bacchus. The Roman Christian writer Tertullian (155-240 AD) wrote that the Brumalia was one of the pagan festivals that were still practiced by Christians, which he criticized his fellow church-goers for. In the year 694 AD, an edict from the Council of Trullo banned the celebration of pagan festivals, including the Brumalia, on penalty of excommunication from the Christian Church. Not even the highest office was exempt from this rule. During the 8th Century, Emperor Constantine Copronymus, which literally means “Shit Name”, was still making offerings to pagan gods – hence the name that he was given by a staunchly Christian population. (11).

 

Source Citations

  1. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 8. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 181.
  3. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 54.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17.
  6. John Mason Good, Olinthus Gregory, Newton Bosworth. Pantalogia, Volume 2: BAR-CAZ. London: T. Davidson, 1813.
  7. William Burder and Joel Parker, A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859. Page 530.
  8. A Merry Tudor Christmas, hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  9. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53.
  10. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: J. Nicholson, 1700; John Lempriere, A Classical Dictionary. New York: D. & J. Bruce, 1809.
  11. Horace Wetherill Wright, “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Page 53; Reverend James Gardner, The Faiths of the World, Volume I: A-G. Edinburgh: A. Fularton & Co., 1858. Pages 393-394.

 

Bibliography

  • Burder, William; Parker, Joel. A History of All Religions. Philadelphia: Leary & Getz, 1859.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: J. Nicholson, 1700.
  • Gardner, Reverend James. The Faiths of the World, Volume I: A-G. Edinburgh: A. Fularton & Co., 1858.
  • Good, John Mason; Gregory, Olinthus; Bosworth, Newton. Pantalogia, Volume 2: BAR-CAZ. London: T. Davidson, 1813.
  • Lempriere, John. A Classical Dictionary. New York: D. & J. Bruce, 1809.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 8. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Wetherill Wright, Horace. “Review of De Bruma et Brumalibus Festis, by John Raymond Crawford. Harvard University Dissertation”. In The Classical Weekly, Volume XV, issue 7 (November 28, 1921). 1922. Pages 52-54.
  • A Merry Tudor Christmas. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.


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