A Pagan Christmas Story

Christmas, as we know it today, is a joyous mix of capitalism and religion. Yet looking back it can be shown that it stemmed from a much more heretical place. Roll up your sleeves, because we’re about to dive into the pagan origins of Christmas.

Whether you are religious or not, most people often associate Christmas with the birth of Christ. Or in other words: the birth of the Son. This particular phrasing is important.

It has become a common historical theory that Christmas was derived from the Roman pagan celebration of the winter solstice, Saturnalia. This was a week-long festival of gifts and festivities that lead up to the dies solis invicti nati, or in other words the “day of the birth of the unconquered sun”. This celebration marked the return of the sun after the shortened days of winter. It is the similarity between Son and sun that leads historians to believe the linking of these two holidays.

Yet Saturnalia itself was originally celebrated by farmers to mark the end of the planting season, in tribute to the god, Saturn. Saturn is the god of farming and agriculture in ancient Rome, and his name is very close to the Roman word satus; to sow. From there Saturnalia festivities were lengthened and pushed back towards the solstice, until it developed into a week-long festival culminating on December 25th.

Image source: Dogancan Ozturan

It was a wild celebration of feasting and festivities, in which social customs were relaxed for the duration of the week. For example, it was common during the week to have servant-master role-reversal and slaves were given temporary freedom to do and say as they pleased for the duration of the celebration. For most of the year, the feet of the statue of Saturn were bound, yet he was untied for Saturnalia as a gesture for him to join in the festivities.

Along with this, there was extensive feasting and the end of the week was marked by the giving of gifts to friends and family. These gifts often consisted of fruits, candles, or small statuettes.

Image sourceKira auf der Heide

Roman emperors tried time and again to gain control over the holiday. They tried to move it, they tried to shorten it, yet with varying degrees of success.

In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. This wouldn’t have changed the Roman Republic's religion overnight, but it ended the persecution of Christians in Rome as well as started patronage to Christian churches. This can be seen as one of the earliest points of the changing of a traditional pagan Roman celebration into a more Christian holiday.

All of this being said, Saturnalia is not considered to be the singular origin of Christmas. Since the beginnings of human society, the halfway point of Winter has been a day of celebration. It is the day that marks a turning point to an ease back into the warmth and safety of Spring. The multitude of celebrations from different cultures have undoubtedly mixed and merged into the contemporary holidays we are familiar with. So while Saturnalia is not the sole origin of Christmas, its pagan roots still can be felt to this day.

Image source: Dario Veronesi

Sources used: 

History Today