Is Christmas related to Saturnalia?
Question: "Is Christmas related to Saturnalia?"
Answer: Christmas, the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, is in fact connected to the pagan festival known as Saturnalia—not, however, for the reasons some skeptics assume. Christianity has always been aware that December 25 is almost certainly not the actual date of Jesus’ birth. The early church did not celebrate December 25 as a day of any significance, and it wasn’t connected to the birth of Jesus until sometime during the reign of Constantine, several hundred years later.
Saturnalia was a week-long Roman festival honoring the god Saturn; since it started on December 17, it fell within what we now call the Christmas season. Interestingly, historical accounts differ about whether Saturnalia celebrations were examples of debauchery or charity. Some accounts mention the rich paying rent for the poor, masters and slaves exchanging clothes, and so forth on Saturnalia. Yet, for most of history, debauchery seems to dominate celebrations of the holiday; in fact, the word Saturnalia became synonymous with immorality and carousing.
To modern eyes some Saturnalia customs come across as hedonistic perversions of Christmas traditions. For instance, singing from house to house naked, feasting excessively, eating baked goods shaped like people, and exchanging bawdy gifts. In reality, there’s good historical evidence suggesting that these events were reformed, absorbed, and transformed over time as a result of Christmas’ popularity overtaking that of Saturnalia.
The early motive for celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 was the same that inspires modern churches to hold “Fall Festivals” or “Bible Costume Parties” on October 31. That is, to provide a spiritually positive alternative to what they perceive as a pagan celebration. Another example is the modern holiday Kwanzaa, a celebration that mirrors the elements and timing of other holidays, with the intention of providing an alternative with a particular cultural focus. Over time, as the Roman Empire Christianized, customs associated with Saturnalia were “cleaned up” and absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.
The association between Christmas and Saturnalia is further supported by the existence of another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, gradually absorbed by Christmas. Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) celebrated, on December 25, the renewing of the Sun King and was linked to the winter solstice. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was raised in this cult of the Unconquered Sun God, and he had a hand in turning Roman culture toward Christ and away from paganism. The first reliable historical evidence of Christmas being observed on December 25 dates from his reign.
So, Christians readily and comfortably acknowledge that the date, traditions, and long-term history of Christmas are connected to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Yet, like a family celebrating a Bible Costume Party on October 31, it’s the people celebrating who decide what the celebration means. Christians of centuries past chose December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the true “Unconquered King.” The use of this date continues today. Christmas and Saturnalia may be historical neighbors with indirect connections, but they are not the same holiday, and they never were.
Recommended Resource: The Case for Christmas by Lee Strobel
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