Christmas Pagan Influences: Saturnalia

Figure 1.--

Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival in honor of Saturn the god of Agriculture, is perhaps the most important pagan influence on Christmas, in large measure determining the selection of the date (December 25) and the nature of the celebration until Victorian times. The actual dates of Saturnalia varied during the course of Roman history. It began during early Roman history as the feast days for God Saturn (December 17) and Ops (December 19). Woth the adoption of the Julian calendar, Saturnalia became December 17 & 18; Opalia on December 19 & 20. During the Empire, it was extended to a week (December 17-23); longer with other holidays. There were a number of associated Roman holiday festivals. This in large measure explains why December was selected by the early Church to celebrate Christmas.


Saturnalia as the name suggests was the festival honoring the ancient Roman gof Saturn. Saturn was the Roman god of Agriculture. To a degree difficult to understand today, the God of Agriculture was an extremely important diety in a society based on agriculture. Saturn as Roman society was Helenized was merged with the Greek Cronos and many of the old agrculural features of Saturnalia were lost.

Other Deities

WhileSaturn was the inspiration for Sturnalia, other deities were honored around the Winter Solstice (December 22). Some of these dieries included Saturns wide Ops. She was the goddes of plenty, the mother earth or in modern parlance--mother nature. Ops was the wife or partner of Saturn or his Greek coubnterpart Consus. . Another especially important god was Sol Invicta--the Sun God. He was assoiciated with the Persian god Mithra arond whom an important Roman cult existed. Sol Invicta was honored by Roman soldiers. Consus - God of Storebin of Harvested Grain. Juventas - Goddess of Young Manhood; related to Greek Hebe of Youthful Beauty. Janus - God of Beginnings and Gates; Solar God of Daybreak; Creator God.


The origins of Saturnalia, or celevrations around the Solstice, probably predate Roman society--if not recorded history. Most cultures in the Mediterrranean had religious festivals around the Winter solstice. For millenia, ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth and rebirth of the sun at this time. The origins of the Roman Satirnalia seem to have been a harvest festival associated with late sowing and the Winter Soltice. The actual dates of Roman Saturnalia varied during the course of Roman history. Saturnalia during early Roman history as the feast days for God Saturn. During the Republic, celebrations for Saturn (December 17) and Ops (December 19) and were limited to 1 day of largely religious events. With the adoption of the Julian calendar, Saturnalia became December 17 & 18; Opalia on December 19 & 20. The Helenenizing of Saturn and religious observarions associated with Saturn affected the largwly agricultural associations. During the later Reoublican era and the Empire, Saturnalia was extended to a week (December 17-23); longer with other holidays. The actual winter solstice occurs on December 22. There were a number of associated Roman holiday festivals. This in large measure explains why December was selected by the early Church to celebrate Christmas. We are not nure how soecificallt Devember 25 was selected, but it seems to have been the end of Saturnalia.

Associated Roman Holiday Festivals

There were a number of associated Roman holiday festivals. Consualia, end of sowing season festival (December 15). Dies Juvenalis, Coming of Age for Young Men (mid-December). Feast of Sol Invicta, the Unconquered Sun, set in 274 A. D. (December 25). Brumalia, Winter Solstice on pre-Julian calendar (December 25). Christmas (December 25), Christians move Christ's birthday to this date in 336 A.D. Janus Day and Beginning of Calendar Year (January 1), set in 153 B.C.; again in 45 B.C. Compitalia, blessing of the fields rural festival (January 3-5).

Nature of Celebrations

Saturnalia until Victorian time largely influeced the nature of the celebration pf Christmas. Perhaps the central feature of saturnalia was merry-making. This is of course a feature of modern Christmas, but Saturnalia merry making was much more exuberant, more like Madi Gras--and so was Christmas merry making until the Victorian era. In fact it was down right licentious that would be seen as extremely inappropriate if not sacriligious in modern terms. The Romans gave themselves up to wild joy. They feasted, they indulged, they gave gifts, and they decorated their homes with greenery. One imprtant feature of Roman Saturnalia was that tThe usual order of the year was suspended: grudges and quarrels forgotten; wars interrupted or delayed. Commercial activities, the law courts, the Senate, and more importantly for the children--schools closed. People of all classes, the rich and poor were considered equal. Slaves were actually served by masters (especially household slaves). Note that there was nothing like thos in the plantation culyure of the anerican South. Young children might head the family--important in patrician Rome. Cross-dressing and masquerades were extremely popular. In fact, merriment of all kinds occured during the festival. Another popular feature was that a mock king--the Lord of Misrule--would be crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of evil and darkness--the origins of the candles so important in modern Christmas celebrations. As Roman culture became increasingly licentious, so did Saturnalia. Here we will not go into furthur detail, but one can well imagine what win on. This is one reason the New England Purtians actually wanted to prohibit the celebration of Christmas. Even so, Saturnalia featured mast aspects of our modern Christmas and New Year: rest and relaxation, evnts with family and friends, the beginning of the new Solar year, prayers for Winter crops, and the honoring of the pertinent deities. Notably, Saturtanlia had none of the focus on childhood that our modern Christmas has. The association with childhood and a holiday where the central focus is on childhood is a Victorian innovation. Here there is litlle connection with either Saturnalia or theceraly Christian Church.

Impact of Saturnalia on Christmas and New Year

There are a large number of similarities with Saturnalia and the modern Christmas. The manifold similarities are so numerous that even the most religious cannot deny a relationship between Saturnalia and Christmas.
Boy Bishops: A popular custom in Medieval Europe was the selection of a Boy Bishop. This seems very similar to the Mock King or other topsy-turvy customs of Saturnalia.
Charity: Helping the less fortunate and other acts of charity were an element in Saturnalia. Class distinctions were suspended for the holidays--to a degree. All shared in the bountiful food--to some extent. The masters might wait on servants. We sispect that this was a custom for household servants and not those toiling in the great agricultural estates or mines.
Family: Thecfamily wascvery importantfor Saturnalia. The Romans might relax, or often party, with family and close friends. They would renew bonds, reminise about old experiences, and share the celebration.
Feasting: Feasting was a very important part of Saturnalia as it is with modern Christmas. Sharing the boutiful harvest with family and friends was a central feature. Bankguets abounded. In this respect there were similarities with Thanksgiving, but this is the case with modern Christmas as well. There was continual eating and drinking--and here alcoholic beverages especially wine was very important.
Figures: Today Americans honor Santa and Father Time. Europeans a host of other characters from Kris Kringle to Father Christmas. The Sovies had Father Frost. The more religious would think of the babu Jesus and the Holy Mother. The Roman figures were Saturn and Ops.
Flames: Flames, sacred and other wise, were an imprtant feature of both Christmas and Saturnalia. Candels, yules logs, and fire place hearths were kindled to drive off evil spirits and rekindle the new Solar year.
Gifts: Gifts and presents of all sorts were exchanged in Rome during Saturnalia. Dolls or more properly little images of claybor pasteryknown as sigillaria were popular gifts to children. These were given to biys and girls. Candles or tapers and fruit were a popular gift to friends.
Greens: Greens were brought into the home as decorations. Here the mats available in winter had to be used. Holly was a favorite because of the colorful red berries. Evergreen boughs were also used. Both wreaths and garlands were widely used in Rome to decorate homes.
Holiday: Saturnalia was a public and commercial holiday. Time off was given from from work. The government, schools, businesses all closed. It was not just 1 day, but multiple dais holiday.
Merry maling: Satirnality was a period of good will and jollity. There was all kinds of merry making during Saturnalia. This continued as a central feature of Chiristmas until Victorian tiomes. The words "jolly" and "merry" is a word that today is used almost exclusively in connection with Christmas--an indication of the degree to which the Vicirians redid Christmas. There was exhuberant if not licentious play. People partcipated in masquerades, gaming, gambling, jokes, partying, letting loose. The mock king custom was very popular ans is the origin of the modern Englisg word "mocking". There were paper or at least soft hats (pilei) worn at Saturnalia banquets to signify informality. Paper hats are in England an important feature of the family Christmas dinner and in America of New Years clebrations. Note that while our Victorian sebsibilities have removed the more ribald features from Christmas celebration, they continue even tis day with New Years. This is especially the case of akey feature od Saturnalia merry making--dancing. This os much more a feature of News Year. Another imprtant aspecty of Saturnalia merry making was music and thid contginues ti be a key feature of Christmas.
Peace: The government to honor the holiday would commonmly suspend punishments. Law courts would close. Wars r more likely battles might be suspended.
Religious celebration: Christmas is perceived at essence as a religious celebration, the spiritual community coming togrther to honor the reining deities or deity. This has perhaps never been the case, It certainlt was not for Saurnalia and it certainly is not for past pr modern Christmasses.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: October 17, 2002
Last updated: January 3, 2003