25 December 2023

25 December

- How December 25 became Christmas Day 

The day the birth of Christ was celebrated rather than the birth of the Sun 

Christmas Day was celebrated on December 25 for the first time by the emperor Constantine on this day in 336 in Rome.  Constantine had probably chosen the date carefully. Christians had been discussing the exact date of the birth of Jesus for some time and December 25 must have been the date most widely agreed. The emperor Constantine was reputed to have regularly accepted the most commonly attested viewpoint so that it would attract the least controversy after his decision was published.  Romans had already been holding festive celebrations in December to celebrate Saturnalia, a pagan Winter Solstice festival. There would be feasting, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and an atmosphere of general goodwill.  The poet Gaius Valerius Catullus had described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’ when writing about it in the first century AD. It was a time when dress codes were relaxed, the wealthy were expected to pay a month’s rent for those who were less well-off, and masters and slaves would traditionally swap clothes.  The festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti - the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun - would also have been celebrated at about this time of the year in Rome when Constantine first became emperor and therefore has a rival claim to be considered as the forerunner of Christmas.  Read more…


Panettone and pandoro - festive treats

Which can claim the oldest Christmas tradition?

The festive treats tucked into by Italian families on Christmas Day almost always include a wedge or slice of panettone, the fluffy sweet bread with the familiar dome shape that sells in tens of millions at this time of year.  In little more than 100 years since it was first produced commercially on a large scale, panettone has gained such popularity that it has become readily available in food outlets on almost every continent.  It is rare to find a supermarket in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, or in most western European countries, which does not have panettone jostling for shelf space with indigenous Christmas specialities.  Nowadays, panettone is finding increasing competition from another Italian sweet bread frequently seen on Christmas tables, its tall star-shaped rival, pandoro.  A recent Twitter poll conducted by the website thelocal.it found that panettone was still the preferred choice of about two thirds of participants, but pandoro’s popularity is almost certainly on the rise.  But which of them has the more authentic historical claim to be Italy’s true Christmas cake?  Read more…


Charlemagne – Holy Roman Emperor

Christmas Day crowning for the Pope’s supporter

Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Lombards, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on this day in 800 in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  He was the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier and has been referred to as the ‘father of Europe’ because he united most of Europe for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, including parts that had never been under Roman rule.  Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became King of the Franks when his father died in 768, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died suddenly in unexplained circumstances it left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.  He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards in power from northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons, making them become Christians or face the death penalty. In 799, Pope Leo III was violently mistreated by the Romans and fled to the protection of Charlemagne in Germany.  Read more…


Natale – Christmas Day

Celebrating Christmas the Italian way

Christmas Day in Italy is the culmination of a celebration that - officially, at least - begins on 8 December with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, at which point towns light up their Christmas illuminations and trees are erected in public squares.  It also sees nativity scenes - called presepi in Italian - unveiled in many towns and cities, a tradition that goes back to 1223, when St Francis of Assisi, inspired by being shown the birthplace of Jesus on a trip to the Holy Land, ordered the creation of a scene representing the birth as a focal point for worship. A local cave was the setting, with straw spread on the floor, a crib placed in the corner and a live donkey, ox and a dozen peasants representing the principles in the scene.  Although living participants have been replaced by model figures for the most part, the stable scene remains at the heart of the idea.  Specialist model-makers have made an industry out of creating presepi figurines, with Naples a notable centre.  Just as in many other countries, Christmas itself is celebrated around food.  La Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve - is marked by Cenone di Natale, a Christmas supper usually comprising several fish courses.  Read more… 


Lina Cavalieri – soprano

Christmas Day baby became singing star

Singer and actress Lina Cavalieri was born Natalina - meaning 'Little Christmas' - Cavalieri on this day in 1874, in Viterbo in Lazio.  During her career she starred opposite Enrico Caruso in operas and earned the title of ‘the world’s most beautiful woman', while many of her female contemporaries tried to attain her hour-glass figure by using tight-laced corsetry.  Raised as one of five children in humble circumstances, she was expected to work to supplement the family income.  To this end, she sold flowers and sang on the streets of Rome.  After a music teacher heard her singing, she was offered some music lessons.  Subsequently, she found work as a café singer and then in theatres in Rome.  Increasingly popular both for her voice and her physical beauty, she made her way from Rome first to Vienna and then Paris where she performed in music halls including the Folies-Bergère and worked with singing coaches to develop her voice.  The progression to opera came in 1900, when she made her debut in Lisbon as Nedda in Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It was in the same year that she married her first husband, the Russian Prince, Alexandre Bariatinsky, whom she had met in Paris.  Read more…


Marco Mengoni - singer-songwriter

X-Factor victory was launchpad to stardom

The singer-songwriter Marco Mengoni, who rose to fame after winning the Italian version of the TV talent show The X-Factor, was born on this day in 1988 in Ronciglione in northern Lazio.  Mengoni triumphed in the 2009 edition - the third series of X-Factor on the public service channel Rai Due before it was bought up by subscription channel Sky Italia - during which he unveiled what would be his debut single, Dove si vola, which he sang for the first time at the semi-final stage.  The single, an example of the sophisticated pop-rock style that would become Mengoni’s trademark,  reached number one in the Italian downloads chart while a seven-track extended play album of the same name sold 70,000 copies, peaking at nine in the Italian albums chart.  Mengoni’s performances on The X-Factor had received favourable comments from both Mina and Adriano Celentano, the all-time bestselling artists in Italian popular music history.  The prize for winning The X-Factor was a recording contract with a value of €300,000 and automatic selection for the 2010 Sanremo Music Festival 2010, in which he finished third with Credimi ancora.   Read more…


Book of the Day: Constantine the Emperor, by David Potter

No Roman emperor had a greater impact on the modern world than did Constantine. The reason is not simply that he converted to Christianity, but that he did so in a way that brought his subjects along after him. Indeed, this major new biography argues that Constantine's conversion is but one feature of a unique administrative style that enabled him to take control of an empire beset by internal rebellions and external threats by Persians and Goths. The vast record of Constantine's administration reveals a government careful in its exercise of power but capable of ruthless, even savage, actions. Constantine executed (or drove to suicide) his father-in-law, two brothers-in-law, his eldest son, and his once beloved wife. An unparalleled general throughout his life, planning a major assault on the Sassanian Empire in Persia even on his deathbed. Alongside the visionary who believed that his success came from the direct intervention of his God resided an aggressive warrior, a sometimes cruel partner, and an immensely shrewd ruler. These characteristics combined together in a long and remarkable career, which restored the Roman Empire to its former glory.  Beginning with his first biographer Eusebius, Constantine's image has been subject to distortion. More recent revisions include John Carroll's view of him as the intellectual ancestor of the Holocaust (Constantine's Sword) and Dan Brown's presentation of him as the man who oversaw the reshaping of Christian history (The Da Vinci Code). In Constantine the Emperor, David Potter confronts each of these skewed and partial accounts to provide the most comprehensive, authoritative, and readable account of Constantine's extraordinary life.

David Potter is Professor of Greek and Roman History and of Greek and Latin in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, where he has taught for more than a quarter century. He is the author of numerous books on Roman History, has appeared on numerous History Channel programs and, for a number of years, contributed a weekly column on issues in Greek, Roman and modern sports to the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. His recent books include Life, Death and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (with David Mattingly), Emperors of Rome, The Roman Empire at Bay 180-395, The Victor's Crown, Ancient Rome: A New History and Constantine the Emperor.

Buy from Amazon


No comments:

Post a Comment