Saturnalia, The First Christmas

While Rome was pagan, Rome did not have a formal state religion that it required all its citizens to adhere to. Yes, there was the Roman pantheon with the sky-god Jupiter at its head. The official state religion was Mithraism, with Mithras being honored as the patron of loyalty to the emperor. Generally, when the Roman army conquered another people, there were no forced conversions and the folks in the conquered territories kept on practicing wherever they were practicing before Rome moved in. Thus, Christianity was simply one of many barely tolerated and mostly persecuted religions.

That all changed with Constantine. In 312 CE he became the Western emperor and in the following year, he issued the Edict of Milan which accepted Christianity. In 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica which made Nicene Christianity1 the Roman state religion.

The Story Behind Christmas

The Roman pre-Christian Winter Solstice celebration was called Saturnalia, a festival in honor of the pagan god Saturn (Latin Saturnus). Originally held on December 17, the holiday was later expanded with festivities through to the 23rd.2 Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honor of Saturn (satus in Latin means sowing or planting). Thus it was originally a simple religious festival which eventually included animal offerings or sacrifices at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. But as with most major religious festivals, a host of cultural, I hesitate to say secular, customs and practices eventually arise. From as early as 217 BCE there were Saturnalia banquets. Saturnalia also included a private gift-giving, role reversals, continual partying and a carnival-like atmosphere.

Emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) may have changed Saturnalia’s date to the 25th of December in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia’s subversive tendencies by marking it with public events under his control. The poet Statius (45- 95 CE), in his poem Kalendae Decembres (“The Kalends of December”), Book 1 of the Silvae, he describes the lavish Saturnalia banquet and entertainments Domitian presided over, including games which opened with sweets, fruit and nuts showered on the crowd and featuring flights of flamingos released over Rome. Shows with fighting dwarves and female gladiators were illuminated, for the first time, into the night.

Saturnalia saw the inversion of social roles. The wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it, masters and slaves to swap clothes. Family households threw dice to determine who would become the temporary Saturnalian monarch. The poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) has the god Chronos (Saturn) say in his poem, Saturnalia:

‘During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.’

Thus we can see that there were two major components to Saturnalia. The first is the rites honoring Saturn which would have been presided over by Roman religious functionaries and in a broader sense, the cult of Saturn. And second, Saturnalia provided an opportunity for celebration and merry-making at the darkest time of the year (shortest day, longest night) and the anticipation of the new birth of the Sun as it begins to move higher in the sky as the days become longer.

The Story behind the Christian December 25

The earliest reference to actually celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25 comes from the Roman Philocalian calendar of 354 CE. Prior to that time, there is but little that we can safely surmise. In fact, for the first few Christian centuries, few writers claimed any knowledge of the day or year in which he was born. So, why pick December 25 at all? There are actually several related reasons. Bishop Hippolytus (c. 170–235 CE) of Rome first assumed that the conception of Jesus was at the vernal equinox, March 25. There were many celebrations in the ancient world around the equinox. The ancient world was not as meat oriented as the modern Western world is today. Life revolved around agrarian cycles, and spring is the time of planting, renewed life and renewed hope. In many parts of the world up until the 18th century (1700’s), spring, being the time of new growth was also the start of the new year.

An interesting corollary, in the ancient world prior to the domination of Christianity, astrology was perceived as a science, and demanded the same degree of respect as does empirical science today. The spring equinox also marks the beginning of the astrological year with Aries, the ram, being the first sign. Even in the Gospel of Matthew, we read about three wise men, Magi or astrologers, who followed a star to the birth of Jesus and offered gold, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh were extensively used in burial rituals, thereby confirming a very astute reading of the stars.

Thus, the assumption of Bishop Hippolytus that Jesus was conceived on the equinox was not off in left field, but instead was very consistent with a world where magick was a common practice. So, how do we get to December 25? First of all, take into account that the human gestation cycle is nine months and that this is self-evident and did not take modern medicine to inform the ancients. And then you can count it on your fingers alone, no need to use your toes, nine months after the equinox is December 25.

From Saturnalia to Christmas

How exactly did the church in Rome turn Saturnalia into Christmas? We’ll never really know as the true facts are lost in the annals of time. There is no clear document trail, no papal encyclicals detailing the transition. What we do have is conjecture and the mental capacity to create reasonable narrative theories or hypotheses if theory seems too over confident.

We can assume with a high degree of confidence that the Roman Church strongly desired to suppress a very popular pagan rite that distracted the attention of the Roman citizenry, few of which, early on, were Christian. The church has a long history of co-opting pagan ceremonies and christianizing them. As the empire continued to spread west, it absorbed Celtic territories where the worship of the Goddess Brigid, thus St. Brigit was born. And here deeds often mirror Celtic mythology.

Then there is the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-win), starting at sundown on October 31 and continuing into the next day. This is the time of year where the veil between our world and the Other world is at its thinnest and it is believed that spirits can crossover between the worlds at that time. Practices revolved around ancestor worship, making specific offerings and being visited by the long dead. To suppress many of the practices and christianize the rest, the church invented All Hallows Eve and all Saints Day. Other aspects of Samhain degenerated into what we now celebrate as Halloween.

Now the Bible is full of genealogies. It appears to be important that we understand the parentage of our biblical heroes. What makes them heroes is that there deeds and actions further divinity’s divine plan. Whether they were real flesh and blood individuals or merely fictitious inventions designed to move the story along is irrelevant. But if they were flesh and blood, besides all of the works credited to them, we know that they were born and that they died. The biblical texts don’t waste a lot of time on that, and in some cases by the time we meet the character, they are adults.

A good example is Abraham, a foundational biblical hero. We meet him when God calls to him to leave the great Chaldean city of Ur. And 175 years later he breathed his and was gathered to his people. Another important hero is Moses. Here we have a birth story, the significance of which is that it foreshadows Moses’ destiny to free his people from Egyptian enslavement. As a baby, he is set adrift in a river and will ultimately lead the Jewish people to freedom, marching them on dry land through the Sea of Reeds.3 And despite all of his great deeds, Moses simply died in Moab, overlooking the promised land but never setting foot upon it.

A third major hero is David. The most significant thing we know about his birth is that he was the great grandson of a Moabite, a Jewish convert. In his life, he defeated the Philistines and restored Israel to its greatness, though we know that it didn’t last. As for his death, all we really know is that he died.

Now we come to Jesus of Nazareth, the first biblical hero that we actually know was a real person. According to the gospel accounts, he was born in the city of Bethlehem during the reign of Herod. We don’t know the exact year and we certainly have no idea about the month and day. If it was important the biblical writer would have provided the date or at least attributed the timing to something significant. But they did not, meaning the particulars were unimportant. The accompanying pomp and circumstance, which is probably just a well constructed affectation, is meant to demonstrate the importance of this birth as opposed to say, an earthly king, and to foreshadow Jesus’ further ministry and ultimate execution on a Roman cross.

Where the timing of his birth was relatively unimportant, the timing of his death was critical. The Jewish Passover is a festival celebrating the original redemption, the exodus from Egypt. Jesus’ act of redemption, his resurrection following his death on the cross, is the new redemption and must therefore also occur on Passover. The timing is not simply just a coincidence

Modern astronomy is ultimately rooted in the ancient art of astrology and the astrological year begins at the vernal equinox. Thus Bishop Hippolytus’ notion that Jesus’ conception had to occur on the equinox made perfectly good sense in the 3rd and 4th centuries and so the notion of his birth on December 25, nine months after the vernal equinox also made perfectly good sense.

While the festival of Easter has been celebrated from the church’s very beginning. Christmas, on the other hand, was not. In fact, I surmise that the celebration originally served a very different purpose. With the infant church4 having just received formal recognition within the empire and on its way to becoming the official state religion, there was a compelling need to supplant major festivals to the pagan gods. Saturnalia, being a very significant and well established religious feast as well as an extremely popular social and cultural festival was a prime target. And with Church folk teachings that Jesus was born on December 25, all the pieces were in place to supplant Saturn, the old pagan god, with Jesus Christ, the new official Roman god. What the early church figured out and what anthropologists have been teaching for years is that it’s much easier to change the mythology behind a ritual (i.e., the explanation of why we do what we do) than it is to change the ritual itself. Gift-giving, for example, was long a part of Saturnalia in honor of the new year and the abundance it was expected to bring now becomes gift-giving in the honor of the birthday of Jesus Christ. And, after all, wasn’t that in itself a major reason to celebrate? Thus December 25 as Christmas was born.5

Saturnalia, as Saturnalia was still celebrated up until probably the 5th century, but by then it was simply a carnival.

  1. The Nicene Creed was a statement of belief, adopted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The Creed continues to define for many mainline Christian denomination yet today.
  2. The date range corresponds to the Sagittarius-Capricorn cusp. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to determine if that’s significant or just an interesting coincidence.
  3. Despite the popular story that Moses led his people across the Red Sea, you will not find that in the Hebrew text
  4. Considering that the Christian Church has been around for two millennia, at barely 300 years old, suggesting that Christianity was still in its infancy is a reasonable assumption. In fact, the foundational Nicene creed had yet to be written.
  5. Another festival often conflated with Christmas is the Germanic midwinter festival of Yule. While the mythology behind Yule is very different, a lot of the elements of the celebration were similar to Saturnalia’s, which, or course, became Christmas. Thus, as the Germanic folks became Christianized, the pagan festival of Yule underwent a Christian reformulation.

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