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Christmas Pagan Influences

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Author Topic: Christmas Pagan Influences  (Read 5287 times)
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« on: November 24, 2013, 09:15:24 am »

Christmas Pagan Influences: Saturnalia
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 god Saturn. Saturn was the Roman god of Agriculture. To a degree difficult to understand today, the God of Agriculture was an extremely important deity in a society based on agriculture. Saturn as Roman society was Hellenized was merged with the Greek Cronos and many of the old agricultural features of Saturnalia were lost.

Other Deities

While Saturn was the inspiration for Saturnalia, other deities were honored around the Winter Solstice (December 22). Some of these deities included Saturns wide Ops. She was the goddess of plenty, the mother earth or in modern parlance--mother nature. Ops was the wife or partner of Saturn or his Greek counterpart Consus. . Another especially important god was Sol Invicta--the Sun God. He was associated with the Persian god Mithra around 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 celebrations around the Solstice, probably predate Roman society--if not recorded history. Most cultures in the Mediterranean had religious festivals around the Winter solstice. For millennia, ancient Egyptians celebrated the birth and rebirth of the sun at this time. The origins of the Roman Saturnalia seem to have been a harvest festival associated with late sowing and the Winter Solstice. 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 Hellenizing of Saturn and religious observances associated with Saturn affected the largely agricultural associations. During the later Republican 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 sure 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 influenced the nature of the celebration of 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 downright licentious that would be seen as extremely inappropriate if not sacrilegious 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 important feature of Roman Saturnalia was that The 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 those in the plantation culture of the American South. Young children might head the family--important in patrician Rome. Cross-dressing and masquerades were extremely popular. In fact, merriment of all kinds occurred 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 further detail, but one can well imagine what win on. This is one reason the New England Puritans actually wanted to prohibit the celebration of Christmas. Even so, Saturnalia featured mast aspects of our modern Christmas and New Year: rest and relaxation, event’s with family and friends, the beginning of the new Solar year, prayers for Winter crops, and the honoring of the pertinent deities. Notably, Saturnalia 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 little connection with either Saturnalia or the early 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 suspect that this was a custom for household servants and not those toiling in the great agricultural estates or mines.

Family: The family was very important for Saturnalia. The Romans might relax, or often party, with family and close friends. They would renew bonds, reminisce about old experiences, and share the celebration.

Feasting: Feasting was a very important part of Saturnalia as it is with modern Christmas. Sharing the bountiful harvest with family and friends was a central feature. Banquets 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 baby Jesus and the Holy Mother. The Roman figures were Saturn and Ops.

Flames: Flames, sacred and other wise, were an important feature of both Christmas and Saturnalia. Candles, Yule’s 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 clay bor pastery known as sigillaria were popular gifts to children. These were given to boys 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 making: Saturnalia was a period of good will and jollity. There was all kinds of merry making during Saturnalia. This continued as a central feature of Christmas until Victorian times. 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 Victorians redid Christmas. There was exuberant if not licentious play. People participated in masquerades, gaming, gambling, jokes, partying, letting loose. The mock king custom was very popular and is the origin of the modern English 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 Year’s celebration’s. Note that while our Victorian sensibilities have removed the more ribald features from Christmas celebration, they continue even tis day with New Years. This is especially the case of a key feature of Saturnalia merry making--dancing. This os much more a feature of News Year. Another important aspect of Saturnalia merry making was music and this continues to be a key feature of Christmas.

Peace: The government to honor the holiday would commonly 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 together to honor the reigning deities or deity. This has perhaps never been the case, It certainly was not for Saturnalia and it certainly is not for past or modern Christmases’.

« Last Edit: November 24, 2013, 09:28:34 am by Mark » Report Spam   Logged

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