How Saturnalia became Christmas

by BoogerMan 7 Replies latest jw friends

  • BoogerMan

    The transition from ancient to present and pagan to Christian:

    4th Century CE, after which a new winter holiday began to be celebrated in Rome: Christmas. But how was the pagan festival of Saturnalia celebrated, and how did it influence and morph into the Christmas celebrations that we know and love?

    Saturnalia was held in honour of the Roman god Saturn and was supposed to represent the revelries of the Golden Age of men: a mythical time where men and gods lived in harmony. Saturnalia itself was an adaptation of the Ancient Greek festival known as Kronia (named after the Greek equivalent of Saturn, Kronos), which was celebrated in midsummer rather than midwinter. It is thought to signify the end of the harvest season to honour Saturn, a god associated with agriculture. Saturnalia was generally considered a merry festival, with lots of feasting and exchanging of gifts. A lot of customs that we associate with Christmas can be traced back to ancient origins, but Saturnalia had its own customs and traditions too.

    Some of the key components to celebrating Saturnalia were the reversal of roles: dress codes were relaxed as Romans donned colourful dinner wear instead of a toga and slaves and masters ate together; perhaps the masters even served food to the slaves as Saturnalia practices varied over time. Gambling was also permitted and even encouraged for slaves and masters alike as the feasting and merriment got underway. There was the custom of giving gifts, particularly pottery or wax figures known as sigillaria, as well as other items such as tablets, dice, toys, candles and many more. Gifting verses, in a similar practice to writing Christmas cards, was also common, as documented by Martial and Catullus. Another practice that is attested is the crowning of a Saturnalicius princeps (‘Ruler of the Saturnalia’) who is seen as the master of the proceedings and his commands have to be obeyed by the guests at the feast. It is possible that this originated as a satiric response to the Roman emperors being known as princeps (‘ruler’ or ‘leader’) rather than rex (‘king’), as this tradition was only attested in the Imperial period of Roman history.

    Saturnalia was overall a jolly time of year for Ancient Romans, and celebrations were enjoyed by all. The phrase ‘Io Saturnalia’ is akin to ‘Merry Christmas’, and has a strongly emotive ritual connotation. The festival sets the precedence for Christmas celebrations, and it is undeniable that Saturnalia’s influence lingers on today. The history of the festival is interesting as the traditions shift to reflect the current status of Rome, and eventually, as Rome becomes Christian in the 3rd Century CE the customs begin to shift to reflect this.

    The traditions of the Saturnalia were always fluid. During Augustus’ reign, the festival was only two days long, yet Lucian, a later imperial poet, describes it as a seven-day event. Caligula tried to curtail it to five days, but the festivities persisted. The date also shifts; it is always in December, but the climax of the festival shifted from December 25th to the winter solstice and back again. The emperor Domitian tried to assert his authority by making it into a public banquet rather than the private feasting that generally marked the celebrations so that he could control the celebrations. Saturnalia was a festival that was constantly evolving, and this lends itself to a shift from pagan worship to Christian worship.

    Rome officially became Christian in 313 CE, but the transition from a pagan society to a Christian society was not an entirely smooth one. Customs, traditions and beliefs were amalgamated into the new Christian society. Rome was not a stranger to fusing different beliefs and traditions: examples such as the worship of Sulis Minerva at Bath (a combination of the Roman goddess Minerva and the local goddess Sulis) shows that beliefs were flexible within Roman society, and the transition of Saturnalia into Christmas furthers this idea.

    There is evidence that Saturnalia as a festival was celebrated for around a century after the conversion of Rome to Christianity. The religious aspects of the festival honouring Saturn appear to have been gradually lost, instead becoming a popular festival designed to bring happiness in the bleak winter season. The connection with mid-winter and the birth of Jesus Christ wasn’t made until the 2nd century CE, and the first known celebration of Christmas celebrating the birth of Christ is from 354 CE. Jesus’ actual date of birth is unknown, and scholars have estimated that he could have been born in June or perhaps around the spring equinox. Regardless, there is no evidence that the widely celebrated date of Christmas was his actual date of birth.

    The date of December 25th specifically likely comes from the Roman festival of dies natalis solis invicti (‘day of the birth of the unconquered sun’), a festival specifically celebrating the birth of the sun. This festival was more specifically religious than the general merriment of Saturnalia, and it is noted that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was brought up in the cult of the Sun, so it is possible that the date of Christmas was designed to replace this festival specifically rather than the more ambiguous dates of Saturnalia.

    The Catholic Church does not like to associate itself with pagan influences; after all, Christians faced persecution from the polytheistic Roman society for many years. However, it is likely that Christmas traditions and customs do stem from the pagan festival of Saturnalia, even if it is circumstantial, as Christianity became the dominant religion in Rome and overtook the previous pagan traditions. Winter festivals are common around the world, and it makes sense that Saturnalia would have direct influences over the new festival of Christmas in the shifting landscape of the late Roman empire. Gift-giving, feasting and a hearty celebration in December could describe either Saturnalia or Christmas, but Christmas has evolved even further from its pagan roots and even its deeply Christian ties to become a time of joy around the world as families come together and celebrate the year that has passed. Saturnalia did not become Christmas in a linear way, but its influence lingers on.

    Written by Mansi Dhokia

  • iloowy.goowy

    The bit about Christmas being a re-worked Saturnalia by the Catholic Church is quite bogus, Boogerman.
    Today is the celebration of the Immaculate Conception and also the first day of Hannukah (The Festival of Lights)

    Listen to this Podcast about the Origin of Christmas, it has little to do with Saturnalia and more to do with the Announcement to Mary that she would conceive a child by Holy Spirit, and this child would be the Light of the World. If you are a believer then it's very interesting that the Christmas holiday celebrates the conception of Jesus by the virgin Mary, and that the baby was born 9 months later in September as another talk by Dr. Michael S. Heiser brings out.

    Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

    How does Revelation help pinpoint the birth of Christ?

  • GrreatTeacher

    Funny, as an elementary school teacher, the kids love the extra fun that comes at Christmas time.

    When I worked in a Catholic school, we could have lots of fun, but the point was that baby Jesus was celebrating his birthday. Decorations fell along those lines. Nativity creches were common.

    When I worked in public school, no nativity and no Jesus were allowed because of the separation or church and state in the US. We had lots of Santa and snowmen. We watched The Polar Express the last day of school before Winter break. We studied other celebrations like Hannukah and Kwanzaa. We were allowed to put up Christmas trees in the classroom. I usually bought giant snowflakes to hang from the ceiling. I made sure my kids had little bags of goodies like pencils, stickers, bouncing balls, candy, etc. And we had a little party with games. My kids lived in poverty and that might be all they got so I tried to make it festive before they left for the week or so of Winter Break.

  • blondie

    Basically, the Roman Catholic Church by decree of the Pope, created holy Christian days to be celebrated at the same time pagan days were, rather than trying to stop the direct pagan worship. The same way they built churches on the pagan sites of worship.

  • BoogerMan

    @ iloowy.goowy - "The bit about Christmas being a re-worked Saturnalia (or Sol Invictus) by the Catholic Church is quite bogus" - according to a source you quote, but not according to many others.

    The fact remains that the birth of Christ became a huge money-making opportunity, designed & decorated with embellishments & explanations not based on scriptures - to make it attractive to all and sundry, regardless of belief.

    Example: The "star" which led the Magi had a pretty poor sat-nav installed.

    It took them to the wrong destination - Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem, (9.5 kilometers away) and straight to a king who wanted to kill Jesus! What was God thinking when He did that??? Unbelievable!

    Then again, countless millions of "stars" = countless mi££ion$ in sales of decorations.

  • Sea Breeze
    Sea Breeze

    I agree with iloowy.goowy.

    I don't believe that Saturnalia (December 17th) has anything to do with Christmas, and neither did Hippolytus, an early Christian leader from the 2nd century. He named December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. He was a first class historian and Christian. Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus, Irenaeus of Polycarp, and Polycarp of the Apostle John.

    His work The Refutation of Heresies cannot be overestimated and in it he details early heresies in chronological order.

    The enemies of Christ do not want his birtday (or mission to redeem man) remembered. Nothing has changed in 2000 years.

    Where I live in Texas, it is slightly farther north than Jeresalem. Yet, it frequently doesn't freeze here until January, some years not at all. Sheep are busy grazing here on December 25th just as they were when the angels announced the most amazing event in all of history to humble shepherds.

    Gotta love God's style. Imagine if the WT was used. They would haved have rented out the Colosseum in Rome, printed chariot loads of papyrus tracts and would have irritated people by the millions while they were sleeping in on Saturday mornings.

  • Sea Breeze
    Sea Breeze


    Matthew 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi a from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

    3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. ...

    9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

    The star took them first to Jerusalem apparently for advertising purposes. Then, the same star led them to the house of Mary and Joseph. Jesus would have been nearly a toddler by this time.

    Things happened exactly as God wanted them to.

  • PioneerSchmioneer

    While it was late to hit the Bible Students’ theology, it was popular among the Second Great Awakening movements to reject Christmas. For a time it was even fashionable among the Mormons, though they eventually adopted it along with Easter (perhaps to make them appear more mainstream). There appear to be two main reasons for this among the NRMs that sprung from this American phenomenon, namely the claim that each of these groups were the restoration of the true Church and thus like the primitive Christians did not celebrate this feast, and a rejection for all things Roman Catholic due to the fact that anti-Catholic sentiment was popular at that time in America.

    By the time it was adopted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1928, there were already significant problems with what was understood to be the “Puritan” rejection of Christmas. It obviously did not matter, as the reasons the Bible Students and of course all Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to adopt new and novel ideas is simply to set themselves apart from others so that they might feel different and important, enlightened by an awareness that the world at large does not have, and somehow only they are saved by putting it into practice.

    The significant problems the Watchtower never discloses are as follows, starting with the date: December 17th was the date for the Roman celebration for Saturnalia, not December 25th. If the Church was trying to “pin the tail on the donkey” for Saturnalia, it missed the mark.

    Another technicality lies in the fact that Christmas begins on December 24th and not the 25th. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t realize this because they think Christmas is what they see from a secular viewpoint. It is merely marked on secular calendars as the 25th because one cannot mark the way the Church marks time. It is exactly the way the Jews do it--like when you see the date for Passover or Hanukkah, which is usually confusing because Jews will tell you it is the “day before” what you see on a secular calendar. Religions follow a liturgical calendar, not a secular one. To be exact, Christmas begins with “Vespers,” or Evening Prayer of the Divine Office that marks the first sign of visible nightfall on December 24th. That is how the Church has counted time for generations, before clocks--and they still do.

    Did the Church try to stamp out the “Sol Invictus” with Christmas? The celebration of “Sol Invictus” was a relatively new one when it was introduced to the Romans, created by the emperor Aurelian in 274 CE, after Christianity had already become a very large influence throughout the Roman Empire to be instituted on December 25, extending Saturnalia from the 17th. A spurious record attributed to Pope Julian I claims that “Christmas” was assigned the same date to counter the emperor, to make it appear that the feast was formalized in 350. But in reality, it appears the liturgy of Christianity had it set to use the darkness of the season to counter Easter’s brightness for some time before the Julian document, and it may not have originated from Rome. So what we have is a new Roman celebration but no real evidence that the Church, which had been around now for almost 250 years, might have been holding a Eucharist observance on the same date in honor of the Nativity on the same day. Which came first? While likely Christmas was formalized afterward, it may have been celebrated before it was formalized and before Sol Invictus was created in 274.

    “Christmas” is not the name of the celebration, by the way. Nor is it an actual party or one day “celebration.” It is the “Nativity,” and it is not a “birthday,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses claim. It marks the miracle of the Incarnation, of God becoming Man in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is what is known as an Octave, and the days are counted in time by the Christians liturgically, like Jews, from sunset to sunset. This is why they talk about “Christmas Eve,” because Christmas actually begins on the sundown before the 25th, on December 24th. It lasts for 8 days, until January 1.

    There are no customs assigned to the Octave, per se, such as a demand for Christmas trees, hanging holly, Yule logs, etc. Those are secular customs that happen outside of the Church that differ from country to country, territory to territory, hemisphere to hemisphere, and none are universal to the Nativity nor are they demanded--not even gift giving. Some Christians don’t do anything special besides go to church. Others have many customs that Jehovah’s Witnesses would never recognize as Christmas customs.

    To be very technical, the date for the Nativity was not assigned by the “Roman Catholic Church” because the Roman Catholic Church did not come into existence until 1054 when the Great Schism occurred. That is when the Church in the West became the “Roman” Catholic Church and the Church in the East and the “Greek” Orthodox Church.

    The Roman customs of Saturnalia that have come down to us in bits and pieces today (and for the most part are commercialized and secularized as “Christmas”) actually disappeared for a time in America, due mainly to austerity in Christian practice, namely among Protestants who wanted to avoid any connection to “popery.” It was illegal in some parts of the New World to even take the day off from labor. But it was not only Charles Dickens whose writing A Christmas Carol eventually changed the minds and hearts of many, others minds called for altering and transporting customs from Europe to make them more “family oriented” and “acceptable” by comparison for the Puritan spirit which still remained among the mostly Protestant American society.

    Loathing Catholicism, lack of scholarship led to open hatred in the publishing and distribution of the book The Two Babylons or The Papal Worship: Romanism and Its Origins by Rev. Alexander Hislop, one of the only non-Watchtower publications to be widely distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses until about 1985. Published in 1858 by the Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland, the book is filled with fabrications, conspiracy theories, misconceptions and downright nonsense, but you find Jehovah’s Witnesses (and sometimes even exJWs) citing some of the very claims it makes as facts to this very day--such as Christmas, like all other things Catholic, is of pagan origin.

    Today it is very hard to distinguish or separate Christmas from its trappings. There is even a Christmas tree at the Vatican, something that one would not in the past find in Roman Catholic homes for some time due to its German/Lutheran origins. One therefore cannot always directly blame some for the confused picture of what the Nativity or Noel is or should be.

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