By Jove! It's Christmas: Did the First Christian Roman Emperor Appropriate the Pagan Festival of Saturnalia to Celebrate the Birth of Christ? Matt Salusbury Weighs the Evidence

By Salusbury, Matt | History Today, December 2009 | Go to article overview

By Jove! It's Christmas: Did the First Christian Roman Emperor Appropriate the Pagan Festival of Saturnalia to Celebrate the Birth of Christ? Matt Salusbury Weighs the Evidence


Salusbury, Matt, History Today


It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn't Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But was Christmas, Western Christianity's most popular festival, derived from the pagan Saturnalia?

The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as 'the best of times': dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.

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

Cronos (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.'

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Saturnalia originated as a farmer's festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.

Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.

From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.

Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) may have changed Saturnalia's date to December 25th 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 (AD 4595), in his poem Silvae, describes the lavish 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.

The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 312 ended Roman persecution of Christians and began imperial patronage of the Christian churches. But Christianity did not become the Roman Empire's official religion overnight. …

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By Jove! It's Christmas: Did the First Christian Roman Emperor Appropriate the Pagan Festival of Saturnalia to Celebrate the Birth of Christ? Matt Salusbury Weighs the Evidence
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