Christianisation of saints and feasts

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The term Christianised calendar refers to feast days which are Christianised reformulations of feasts from pre-Christian times. Moreover, the historicity of some Christian saints has been treated skeptically by a number of academics, either because there is a paucity of historical evidence for their origins, or due to resemblances to pre-Christian deities and festivals.

Christianisation of saints[edit]

In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church officially decanonised some Christian Saints, demoted others, and pronounced the historicity of others to be dubious. Though highly popular in the Middle Ages, many of these such saints have since been largely forgotten, and their names may now seem unfamiliar to Christians. An example is Saint Eustace, who was extremely popular in earlier times, but scholars now see as a chimera composed from details of several other Saints.

In most Christian groups, and particularly in Catholic and Orthodox groups, there is an annual commemoration of the dead on 2 November, known by various titles such as All Souls' Day, the Day of the Dead. It follows All Saints Day on 1 November, which in western Europe and North America is preceded by Halloween, which has become somewhat detached from the commemoration aspect. In pre-Christian times, this cross quarter day was celebrated as Samhain, in Celtic countries, and Dziady in Slavic countries. In many early cultures, including not only Celtic cultures, but also the Hebrew, the standard reckoning of time considered a day to start with darkness and gradually become lighter; dusk was the start of a day, not an indication that it approached its end. Similarly, in Celtic countries the year was considered to begin in winter at Samhain, and it was thought that the start of the year was a time when the world of the dead met that of the living; rather than a sinister event, this was considered a time when a feast should be laid on for the supposed temporary visit from the souls of the dead. The Orthodox tradition, deals rather with the zealous prayer for the dead, whom they believe are allowed to visit the living during 40 days after the moment of death, and always are greatly comforted and even saved from hell, through these prayers. In Catholic traditions, the night is one when the graves of dead relatives are visited, with candles being lit, under a familiarly atmosphere, often including picnic; many historians argue that this is clearly derived from the pre-Christian events. The Christian festival was originally held annually on the week after Pentecost, and is still held at about this date by the Orthodox churches, but in western Europe, churches began to hold it at the same time as the pre-Christian festivals commemorating the dead, and it was eventually moved officially, by Pope Gregory III. The pre-Christian Romans also had a festival concerning the dead at 9 May, 11 May, and 13 May, known as the Feast of the Lemures, which cultural historians have identified as the source for All Saints Day, and which the ancient Romans identified as being the same as Samhain, despite the large difference of date.[citation needed]

Saint Valentine's Day on 14 February, traditionally linked to romance, is attributed by Christianity to a "Valentine". However, no early documents connect Valentine, whoever he may be, with love, and such legends only appear in the mediaeval era, while the pre-Christian festival of Lupercalia held on the same day was strongly connected to romance, as it was a major Roman fertility festival. Pope Gelasius I both banned Lupercalia and instituted the feast day of Saint Valentine, and many scholars think that the romantic significance of Lupercalia is the source of the romantic significance of Valentine's Day.[citation needed]

Theories of the Christianisation of feasts[edit]


Christmas on 25 December is, according to Christian tradition, a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Although there have been various folk suggestions regarding the origin of Christmas, the earliest historical source stating December 25 as the date of birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), written very early in the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months.[1] There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and Baptism of Jesus on the same day, on January 6 while those in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25 (perhaps influenced by the Winter solstice); and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts.[2] The earliest suggestions of a feast of Baptism of Jesus on January 6 during the 2nd century comes from Clement of Alexandria, but there is no further mention of such a feast until 361 when Emperor Julian attended a feast on January 6 in the year 361.[2]


Though not celebrated in many Christian countries in as lavish a manner as Christmas, Christians usually regard Easter as their most important festival. All parties acknowledge similarities of Easter to the Jewish passover, since to Christians this has strong theological significance, and many adjectives relating to Easter, such as paschal, and the name of Easter in non-English speaking countries, are etymologically derived from the Hebrew term for passover. The tenebrae, a service held by most, but not all, Christian groups, is clearly based on the idea of darkness covering the earth, though Christian apologists usually argue this is representative of Jesus being removed from the earth (due to impending death), not on the ominous foreshadowing of the passover portrayed in the bible.[citation needed]

Though one of the central tenets of Christianity is usually considered to be a belief that the Biblical events of Easter are based on similar (or exactly identical) actual historic events, more secular and non Christian scholars have argued that the Biblical description is a heavily contrived allegory simply using the passover as its template to appeal to Jewish sensibilities. Historic records indicate that Easter was not always celebrated in early Christianity, and Socrates Scholasticus (b. 380) argued that the observance of Easter by the church (which he believed should continue) was simply the perpetuation of local custom (most likely meaning the Jewish passover), and that neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this (or any other) festival.[citation needed]

Other examples[edit]

The legend of Barlaam and Josaphat was derived, via Arabic and Georgian versions, from the life story of Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha. The king-turned-monk Ioasaph (Georgian Iodasaph, Arabic Yūdhasaf or Būdhasaf) also gets his name from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva, the term traditionally used to refer to Gautama before his awakening.[3]

Barlaam and Ioasaph were placed in the Orthodox calendar of saints on 26 August, and in the Roman martyrology they were canonized (as "Barlaam and Josaphat") and assigned 27 November. The story was translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages as "Ben-Hamelekh Vehanazir" ("The Prince and the Nazirite"). Thus the Buddhist story was turned into a Christian and Jewish legend.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mills, Watson E.; Edgar V. McKnight; Roger Aubrey Bullard (1990). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press. p. 142. ISBN 0-86554-373-9. 
  2. ^ a b Aspects of the liturgical year in Cappadocia (325-430) by Jill Burnett Comings 2005 ISBN 0-8204-7464-9 pp. 61–71
  3. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Barlaam and Josaphat". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  4. ^ Joseph Jacobs (ed. and inducer), Barlaam and Josaphat. English Lives of Buddha (David Nutt, London, 1896) xvi-xvii


  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay, Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100 – 400 Yale University Press (paperback, 1986 ISBN 0-300-03642-6 )
  • Trombley, Frank R., 1995. Hellenic Religion and Christianization c. 370-529 (in series Religions in the Graeco-Roman World) (Brill) ISBN 90-04-09691-4
  • Vesteinsson, Orri, 2000. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000-1300 (Oxford:Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-820799-9