Is Christmas Based On Saturnalia?
This time of year social media is full of claims regarding the origins of Christmas and whether or not Christians should be celebrating the holiday. YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms are overflowing with videos and memes seeking to tie the origins of Christmas to various pagan gods and holidays; all serving to create a rather effective echo chamber.
These voices certainly appear to drown out any claims to the contrary and as a result Christians often find their consciences troubled. However, as seekers of the truth we must set aside the passion, zeal and abundance of such claims and consider the actual sources and historical record.
What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia was a loud and chaotic Roman religious festival based on worshipping the god Saturn. Saturnalia was held on December 17th and eventually ran until the 23rd of the same month.
A statue of Saturn was located at his main temple where his feet were bound year round in wool until it was removed at the start of Saturnalia. This act symbolized liberation and was followed by sacrifices (likely human sacrifices initially and later replaced pigs). Then this statue was taken and placed upon a reclining couch, so as to preside over the festivities.
Saturnalia was celebrated by large feasts, the giving of gifts, gambling, singing, drunkenness, orgies, rape and other forms of violence; though its overall theme was that of role reversal. This aspect of role reversal meant that slaves and free men would drop formalities, wear similar clothing and though the slaves prepared the meals, the masters would serve their slaves before eating themselves.
To oversee the ceremonies a King of Saturnalia was selected by lot. His absurd commands were related to the festivities such as “Drink more wine!” and “Sing naked!” and had to be obeyed.
The gift giving occurred throughout with an emphasis on December 19th. As expensive or unique gifts were contrary to the spirit of the holiday, gifts were often wax candles and clay figurines respectively called cerei and sigillaria. It is believed these came to be substitutes for actual human sacrifices as Roman society evolved; the figurines representing actual humans and the candles signifying the fire of life.
Is Christmas just a re-gifting of Saturnalia?
These claims often center on the idea of Rome seeking to make Christian converts of those who refused to abandon their pagan traditions and thus borrowing these pagan practices. To varying degree there is often an anti-Roman Catholic sentiment in the mix wherein a rejection of Roman Catholicism and overall distrust the Church results in assuming they played some sort of deceptive role and compromised the truth for power.
There is however one major problem which thoroughly refutes such claims… Christianity was a persecuted religion which was not protected until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD or made the official State religion of Rome until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD. Yet, early Christian writing date the birth of Christ to December 25th well before these protections were in place and well before Rome sought to make Christianity the state religion.
Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD)
Hippolytus was said to be a disciple of Irenaeus, who was in turn a disciple of Polycarp – a disciple of the Apostle John. He was devoted to tracing the various Christian heresies of his day to false pagan philosophies. He was known as a conservative, a proto-Trinitarian opposed to modalism, and a man of principle – all of which brought him in direct opposition to several Church leaders in Rome. To this day he is described by the Roman Catholic Church as an anti-Pope, though he was reconciled with Bishop Fabian and is recognized as a martyr. At that time Christianity was still very much a persecuted religion and Hippolytus died, having been sent to the mines of Sardinia by Emperor Maximus Thrax.
In his Commentary on Daniel, written between 202-211 AD, we see December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth.
“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.” Commentary on Daniel 4.23.3
Additionally, Hippolytus talks about Jesus’ conception and death in two other works, Canon and Chronicon. The Canon asserts that the conception of Jesus took place on the Passover of April 2, 2 BC (9 months before December 25th) and that He died on the Passover, March 25, 29 AD. While the Chronicon does not give a specific date for Jesus’ birth and death it does share the claim of Canon that Jesus was born 5500 years from the creation of the world.
Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)
Titus Flavius Clemens was a Christian theologian and early apologist. His parents were both pagans but in his youth he rejected paganism due to its moral corruption. He converted to Christianity and was known for being a vocal opponent of gnosticism and paganism.
In his work entitled Stromata, Clement seemingly uses the same method of Hippolytus for calculating the dates of Jesus’ conception, birth and death. Believing Christ died on Passover and that He was conceived on the 24th or 25th, his writing suggests he concluded Christ was born on December 25th.
For the early Christians, dating the birth of Christ had nothing to do with pagan festivals or borrowing from myths, nor about making Christianity popular by inclusion of paganism. Rather, it had to do with an emphasis on the conception of Christ coinciding with the anniversary of the creation of the world and His birth and death both occurring on Passover.
What Do Saturnalia and Christmas Have in Common?
Critics often point to similarities among Christmas and Saturnalia as a sort of proof that the former evolved from the latter.
Both are occur in the month of December.
Both involved gift giving.
Both employed singing and merriment
Both included elaborate meals or feasts
Both had themes of life and death
Such passing similarities are far from proof, but rather ring of desperation to validate such claims. Consider for a moment your birthday falls in December, now look back at these similarities and see if the claim could be made your birthday is based on Saturnalia. Surely, vague commonalities are not actual evidence.
It is well documented that by the third century Christians recognized December 25th as the birth of Christ. The writing of men like Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and Sextus Julius Africanus serve as historical proof that December 25th did not come about in response to Rome's embrace of the Christian religion, but predate it. Moreover, this date was not used to piggyback off the popularity of a pagan holiday but instead reflected Hebrew and Christian chronology of the creation of the world.
There is nothing shared between the origins of Christmas and Saturnalia beyond a few passing similarities which critics now seek to exploit. The early Church was focused on combating paganism and refuting it, not embracing it to make Christianity more popular, and they often paid for this with their lives.
This is not to say that perhaps some pagan practices did not eventually become part of the tradition - a topic we hope explore in future articles.