The paterfamilias of the household is astride a chair in the middle of a pleasantly patterned floor. He steals a glance at his wife whose hair is curly and piled high. The end of the year is almost upon him, so the central heating is going at full tilt. This, the most important holiday of the year, is a time to alternate between merriment and repose. His children are free from schooling. Government and business are on hiatus, giving him time off work to honor his God and celebrate by exchanging gifts, reuniting with friends and family, helping the less fortunate and eating, drinking and dancing to excess. Inevitably, he will wear a silly hat.
It is two hundred years before the birth of Christ, and this is the Saturnalia.The Saturnalia was a holy day, or holiday. It was a time to celebrate because farmers could relax after finishing their autumn planting. Nature would be changing from a phase of degeneration to one of renewal.
Saturn, son of Uranus and Gaia, was the leader of the Titans, and an agricultural god. Greek mythology knew him as Cronos. Saturn’s rule was the “Golden Age”, when there was no crime and no need for farming. Saturn/Cronos was deposed by his son, Jupiter/Zeus, in a war called the Titomachy. Jupiter imprisoned his father in a secret, subterranean location where he sleeps, waiting to return and herald another Golden Age.
Prayers were said to Saturn to protect crops. Being associated with abundance, Saturn’s temple in Rome housed the Aerarium, the state treasury.
December 17th is the winter solstice, shortest day of the year, significant to cultures without convenient artificial lighting. The sun would reach its lowest point and appear stationary for a while, before ascending. The word “solstice” originally comes from “sol”, Latin for “sun”, and “status”, meaning “to come to a stop”.
A stone circle at Newgrange in Ireland calculated the occasion of the solstice. Built around 3,100 BCE it anteceded both the pyramids and Stonehenge. People without ready access to a neolithic stone circle had to make alternative arrangements, which accounts for the variance of the date of the Saturnalia in extant records. It was, however, always between the middle and end of December.
The Saturnalia came between the other agricultural festivals of the Consualia and the Opalia. The Consualia coincided with the opening of granaries and honored Consus, god of the granary. The Opalia honoured Ops, Saturn’s wife, who was linked to the fruits of the earth and is what we now call “Mother Nature”. Other festivals around this time were Dies Juvenalis, the Coming of Age for Young Men, and Janus Day at the beginning of the calendar year. Juventas was the god of male youth and the two-faced Janus was that of beginnings and gates.
The last god commemorated was Mithras, whose religion started in Persia in the 15th century BCE. “Mitra” meant “sun” or “friend”, and Mithras was a sun god who merged with the Roman sun god Sol Invictus, itself a Syrian creation. Mithras was worshiped by the military and the upper classes of Rome. The Roman Emperor claimed to be an incarnation of this god, and Mithras eventually became the official, main religion of the confusingly polytheist Roman Empire. Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th, the date that became Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – Nativity of the Invincible Sun. Mithras had twelve followers, promised immortality, refrained from sexual intercourse, performed miracles, and rose again three days after dying to redeem mankind. Followers of Mithras marked his passing with a sacred meal of bread and wine. The bread represented the flesh of Mithras, and the wine, his blood.
During the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), Titus Livius, aka Livy, wrote a history of the Roman Empire. He said the onset of the Saturnalia was marked by a sacrifice of young pigs at the temple of Saturn, followed by a public banquet, a tradition which began in 217 BCE. The banquet was open to everyone, including the poor and the homeless. At the end of the banquet, the attendees would shout, “Io, Saturnalia!” – pronounced, “Yo, Saturnalia!” and equivalent to “Merry Christmas”.
In the time of Cicero (106-43 BCE), Saturnalia lasted for seven days. Since government and business didn’t function over this period, Augustus tried to limit the Saturnalia to three days. Caligula, reigning from 37-41 CE, generously extended this to five days. Both were ignored, and people took a week off anyway.
The Saturnalia was marked by the giving of gifts: wax candles representing the new-born sun, fruit symbols giving a nod to nature, strenae (boughs hung with sweetmeats or cakes) and earthenware dolls known as sigillaria. Sigillaria are still given in the traditional Christmas market of Rome’s Piazza Navona.
The Saturnalia was a time when usual strictures were relaxed. Lucian of Samosata, the Syrian satirist, had Saturn saying, “When I was king, slavery was not”. Saturnalia was a symbolic return to the Golden Age of Saturn. Men wore clothes less formal than togas: the long, tunic-like synthesis. Transvestism became briefly acceptable. No similar concessions to women are recorded. Gambling, usually punishable by a fine of four times the stake when conducted outside of a racetrack, was legal during the Saturnalia. Slaves were granted time off. At dinner, Roman masters served their slaves, who wore the masters’ clothes. This tradition has been heard of recently in the British military. At another time of the year, a disrespectful slave was once asked if it was December yet.
The writer Libanius said of the Saturnalia, “The impulse to spend seizes everyone”. It was the tribune, Publicus. who suggested that because the Saturnalia was such a strain to the finances of the poor, nobody should give anything more than a wax taper to someone richer than himself.
Within families, dice were used to choose a Saturnalian King. The commands of this “Lord of Misrule” had to be obeyed. His decrees might see people singing, dancing, blackening their faces or being thrown into cold water. Loaded dice are thought to have gained Nero this position. He compelled Claudius’ son, Britannicus to sing, humiliating this unfortunate lad whose singing voice was terrible.
The general public also had a Lord of Misrule. The winter solstice marked the death and rebirth of the sun king, Sol Invictus. Instead of killing a real monarch, a Lord of Misrule was appointed for Saturnalia, usually a criminal or slave. He was given royal robes and feathers or ass ears. He was honoured as a true king until the end of the festival, whereupon he was killed on the altar of Saturn. The mocking (“mock-king”) of Jesus by Roman soldiers in the run-up to his crucifixion would seem to have been inspired by this.
Emancipated slaves wore a felt cap called a “pilleus”, but during the Saturnalia, everyone wore them.
The ideal party had an attendance of “more than the graces” (three) but “less than the Muses” (nine).
The feet of the statue of Saturn in the Roman Forum were normally bound, but were untied over Saturnalia. Punishments were suspended and wars had to wait until later. This behavior carried down to the level of individuals, who put grudges aside and did not chastise their slaves for the duration.
The poet, Catullus, described the Saturnalia as “the best of days” – optimus dierum. Not everyone agreed. Seneca said, “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures”. The historian Pliny the Younger turned his back on his household and escaped to his room. Worse killjoys were at large: Commodus, considered to be one of the worst Roman Emperors and the model for the emperor in the film Gladiator, was murdered in his bath during the Saturnalia of 92 CE.
Cicero’s Saturnalian hospitality was stretched to its utmost when Julius Caesar turned up on his doorstep unannounced with half his army in tow, expecting Cicero to entertain his party. Cicero rose to the occasion, but spent future Saturnalias in the countryside, removed from trouble.
Evergreen plants were associated with immortality, a concept hailing from the mythology of Nimrod. When Nimrod died, his wife (also his mother) said an evergreen tree sprouted immediately, and his soul visited it every December 25th. This is where Christmas trees come from, despite tree worship being condemned by the Bible (Deuteronomy 12:2-3, Jeremiah 10: 1-5).
Another evergreen plant used as decoration at Christmas is mistletoe, associated with healing, fertility and opening locks, and used by druids in their ceremonies. When warring factions found themselves ‘neath mistletoe, they put aside their weapons and kept a truce until the next day. These days, we just kiss.
Other pre-Christian decorative vegetation included holly and ivy, representing male and female, like yin and yang. The song “The Holly and the Ivy” is a pagan ditty telling of the struggle between the two for control of the household.
Roman Saturnalian celebrations grew so uninhibited the word “saturnalia” became synonymous with “orgy” to Christians.
The Saturnalia spread as far as Roman rule. The transformation of the Saturnalia to Christmas began when Constantine, reigning from 306-337 CE, replaced Mithras with Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine chose Christianity because he’d ordered the execution of his wife and eldest son, amongst others, and Christianity was the only religion that would forgive him.
The first Christians attached no significance to Jesus’ birthday, being interested in the man, not the boy. Their principal festival was Easter, at first celebrated at the time of the Passover but later moved to the vernal equinox, when the suns crosses the celestial equator, and day and night are of equal length. After the vernal equinox, nights get longer and the sun “dies”.
The purpose of Christmas was to appropriate Saturnalia, making Christianity more attractive to converts who wouldn’t have to forsake their favorite festival. Like Mithras, Christianity is essentially sun worship. Replacing celebration of the birth of the sun god with celebration of the birth of the Son of God was a small leap of the imagination. The paganism of Christmas disgusted the Christians of Syria and Armenia who correctly accused their western co-religionists of sun worship.
At first the “Mass of Christ” was called the Feast of the Nativity, held on December 25th. It made its first appearance in history in the calendar of Philocalus in 354 CE. It spread to Egypt by 432 CE, to England by the end of the sixth century, and all the way to Scandinavia by the end of the eighth century. Until then, the Virgin Mary was on a par with the saints, but with the celebration of her son’s birth, she was elevated to Queen of Heaven. Originally, decoration of houses with greenery was prohibited for its pagan connotations, but as the Roman Emperors had already found, people couldn’t be reined in at this time of year.
The 17th Century Puritan campaign to outlaw the “antichrist-mass, idolatry, abomination“ of Christmas in England made much of the fact that the Bible doesn’t mention the date of Jesus’ birth. But we can take a guess.
According to the Gospel of Luke, “…there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”. They weren’t doing that in December.
Per Luke 1:24-27, Jesus was six months younger than John the Baptist, son of Zacharias, a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. Priestly service was divided into courses, listed in Chronicles 24:7-19. According to the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, courses lasted a week and the pattern began in what the Hebrew calendar called Nisan, in early spring. The courses were repeated and during Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests served together.
The Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:23, 24) says John was conceived after Zacharias had been active in the temple. If we work out when Zacharias was available for purposes of fertilization, add nine months of pregnancy and the six month difference in age between Jesus and John, we can ascertain Jesus’ birthday as mid-September, the time of the Feast of Trumpets, now Rosh Hashanah. The Feast of Trumpets would explain why Jerusalem was packed and there was “no room at the inn”. Further, the Romans were conducting a census, and the best time for this is when people congregated in cities at the time of a pilgrimage.
Other Christmas fixtures are also pagan. The yule log is a phallic symbol honoring the Scandinavian pagan sex and fertility god Yul. Scandinavians still wish each other merry Christmas by saying, “God Yul” or “Good Yule”. So a yule log is a cock. Children make these at basic school! It was common for pagans to worship a hearth god dressed in red who descended chimneys and collected offerings left for him on the hearth or the mantle. Hearth gods dressed in red are still worshiped in India and China, while the Western world has Santa Claus.
Santa employs elves. Elves were originally tree demons worshiped by pagans, who blamed their mischief when an object seemingly appeared in a place other than that where it was left. Elves like imps, hobgoblins, djinn, gremlins and gnomes were outright evil, not just mischievous, and derived their power from Old Nick himself.
Christians often lament that Christmas is losing its connection to Jesus. Originally, it never had a connection to Jesus. Surely that’s a good thing. We don’t need to manufacture an African festivity like Kwanzaa. The Chinese call the winter solstice Dong Zhi, “the arrival of winter”. Jews call it Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Native Americans celebrate the winter solstice, as do Pakistanis, Tibetans and Iranians. The end of the year and the lengthening of the day are the only reasons you need to feast and give presents, whatever your creed. We’re all Pagans on December 25th
Let’s do Christmas the old-fashioned way, and keep Jesus out of it.
Written by Timothy Chilman (firstname.lastname@example.org)