Published: 18-03-2010, 10:22


Some writers trace elements of traditional European Christmas celebrations back to ancient Mesopotamian new year festivities. Indeed, an examination of the Zagmuk, or Akitu, festivals of ancient Mesopotamia reveals some striking resemblances to European celebrations of Twelfth Night and the Twelve Days of Christmas.


Two thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Mesopotamians, a people of the ancient Middle East, celebrated their new year festival around the time of the spring equinox. The land once occupied by the ancient Mesopotamians now lies within the modern nation of Iraq. The Sumerians, who inhabited southern Mesopotamia, called their version of the festival “Zagmuk,” while the Babylonians called it “Akitu.” Experts believe that the festival lasted eleven or twelve days. It honored the yearly renewal of the world by the sun god Marduk, who created the world out of chaos. The people viewed the last days of the year as a time of decay. The forces of life and order were weak, and the forces of death and chaos were strong. To prevent the god of chaos and destruction from gaining control, the sun god Marduk must again defeat him in battle.


The ceremonies enacted during Zagmuk reflected these beliefs. Priests recited the lengthy epic describing the original victory of Marduk over the forces of disorder. The king also played a special role in new year observances. In the temple of Marduk, the high priest ceremonially stripped the king of power and rank, reinstating him only after the king had knelt and sworn to the god that he had always acted in accordance with the god’s will. Some scholars propose that Mesopotamian beliefs dictated that the king die at the end of the year in order to descend into the underworld and aid Marduk in his yearly battle. Historical evidence suggests that a mock king was selected from among the ranks of criminals. During the time of the festival, he was given all the luxuries and privileges that the real king enjoyed. At the end of the festival, however, some scholars believe that the mock king was executed and sent to the underworld in place of the real king. Other scholars doubt that this occurred. According to another custom, the king and a woman from the temple reenacted the marriage of the god Marduk and his consort.


Popular customs and festivities evoked not only the epic struggle between the forces of order and disorder, but also the joyful celebration of the birth of the new year. In anticipation of Marduk’s victory, the people staged mock battles between the gods, watched the burning of ceremonial bonfires, gave gifts, paid visits, feasted, and paraded in masquerade (see also Kalends; Saturnalia).


Some of the customs and folk beliefs associated with Zagmuk resemble those of medieval European celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night (see also Christmas in Europe). Similar acts of revelry and topsy-turvy events characterized the observance of both festivals. During the Twelve Days of Christmas, mock kings and bishops assumed temporary authority, costumed figures masqueraded through the streets, and people feasted together and lit special fires (see also boy bishop; Lord of Misrule; mumming; Yule; Yule log). Moreover, both Zagmuk and the Twelve Days of Christmas were celebrated at the end of the calendar year. Folk beliefs associated with both festivals warned that the waning of the year unleashed potentially destructive supernatural forces (see also Christmas Lads; kallikantzari; Wild Hunt; Yule). Finally, the length of these festivals—eleven or twelve days — presents another interesting similarity. Because both festivals were observed at the end of the year, some experts suggest that these festival days represented a kind of intercalary period, the additional 11.25 days needed to reconcile the lunar year of 354 days to the solar year of 365.25 days.