Saturnalia: Christmas before Christ

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Saturnalia: Christmas before Christ
Presents, one of the archetypal Christmas traditions, can be traced back to Saturnalia. (Phil Ashley/Lifesize/Getty Images)

“Now in December and the beginning of January there were several festivals which were intimately associated with the daily life of the Roman people. First, from the 17th to the 21st December, was the Saturnalia, the great Roman holiday....One might call it the Feast of Topsy-turveydom; when slaves were allowed for a few days to enjoy the semblance of freedom, were waited upon by their masters, and chose from amongst themselves a mock king to preside over their revels.”

— T. G. Crippen – Founder of the Congregational Historical Society

There are many contenders for the origin of Christmas, but most scholars put the solar-centric solstice festivals over the lesser-known Roman week of revelry known as Saturnalia. However, there are numerous customs we still practice today which can be traced back to the festival, such as decorative wreaths, carolling, feasts, general merriment, the giving of gifts, spending time with family and even the wearing of paper hats. These links are firm and essentially undeniable, but the dark pagan past of Christmas leads some modern Christians to believe that celebrating it is wrong, tantamount to celebrating the birthday of Hitler.

Solstice and the birth of Mithras

Saturnalia: Christmas before Christ
(Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Christmas is most commonly associated with the solstice celebrations, which are extremely prevalent in various pagan religions. The holiday which was technically adopted as Christmas, and which most people are aware of, is the feast of Mithras, the Roman god of light. Winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and the 25th of December was generally seen as the rebirth of Mithras. The Christian explanation of Christmas day marking the birth of Jesus is wholly incorrect, as most scholars put his birthday as being in September. The holiday went from being the birth of the sun-god to the birth of God’s son.

Historian Jack Finegan explains how an ancient Roman Emperor essentially set the date for the modern Christmas, “In the year 274 Aurelian declared the god -- now called Deus Sol Invictus -- the official deity of the Roman Empire; he built a splendid temple of the sun in Rome...and set the sun's birthday celebration (naturalis solis invicti) on December 25th, the date then accepted for the winter solstice (also in his solar character the birthday of Mithras).” He goes on to argue that Jesus’ birthday celebrations were moved from the 6th of January to the 25th of December to encourage pagans to adopt the new religion.

Although this explains the date for Christmas, its specific traditions draw from numerous other pagan rituals, including the Scandinavian Yule, the Roman New Year’s Eve and the Anglo-Saxon Mother Night. For example, during the Roman New Year’s Eve celebration – which was dedicated to the god Janus – songs, present-giving and decorating the home with natural ever-greens was common. The traditional Christmas tree and the wreaths often hung on doors are a relic of this ancient practice. As historian Will Durant commented, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”


One of the lesser-known but arguably more influential pre-Christmas holidays is the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. As the name suggests, it’s dedicated to the god Saturn, who was the god of farming and plenty. It traditionally started on the 17th of December and lasted until around the 21st, but as new dates were added to the Roman calendar and the people began to stretch the merriment out even further, it soon extended until the 25th.

The main characteristic of the festival is the temporary freedom of the slaves. Not only would they be allowed to do as they please, they would often change clothes with their masters, and the courts were closed. There were no punishments for the damage to property or injuring others, and people were allowed to gamble in public. Another common tradition was for the affluent members of society to lay on a lavish feast for those less fortunate. Gaius Valerius Catullus described the holiday as the “best of days,” showing its level of veneration amongst the populous.

The week was entirely dedicated to merriment, with widespread drinking, over-indulgence in food, knocking on doors to sing to people naked, sexual liberty (reportedly even including rape) and absolutely no business allowed. Gifts were given (commonly wax candles to friends and dolls to children), and more relaxed clothes, including a felt cap ordinarily worn by slaves, were permitted at the dinner table.

The felt cap has been associated with the paper hat often worn at Christmas (religiously stuffed into crackers), the gifts have been preserved, albeit in modern incarnations and hardly anybody has to work. Carolling has thankfully become a clothed affair, and nakedness isn’t even common with modern pagans themselves. A Berkshire Wiccan (pagan “witch”) pointed out that “it’s certainly too cold at this time of year to run about with no clothes on.”

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