Rome, the origin of Saturnalia

The origin of Christmas: ancient festivities and the winter solstice

Christmas has never been a religious holiday for me. At first, when I was younger, it was all about the presents, although as I got older it gradually became all about the food.

I was not brought up to be religious, I have never prayed and I have never been to church except to admire the building’s beautiful architecture or the art adorning its walls. In Rome, you don’t even have to pay to visit all the top museums to admire the works of some of the greats. You can find amazing works of art by the likes of Michelangelo, Bernini and Caravaggio scattered across the Eternal City’s churches and basilicas.

I have written a lot about both legends and history and the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and the origin of the celebration of Christmas is one of the most influential around the world.

Each year Christmas seems to become more of a secular and cultural holiday rather than a religious one and you will even find Christmas lights, trees and decorations throughout Asia and other non-predominant Christian countries. However, this time of year has always been a time of festivities and celebration long before Christianity came along.

In times of old, ancient Europeans celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. It was a time of feasts and celebration as it marked the coming of longer and better days. By then most of the wine and beer had finished fermenting and all the cattle had been slaughtered to prevent having to feed them throughout the long winter when crops were scarce. This created the perfect excuse for a grand feast of meat and booze around a warm fire now that the darkest days of winter were behind them.

The Norse would set ablaze giant logs and feast for up to 12 days, until the fire finally burned out. According to legend, each spark that would leap from the burning logs would symbolise the birth of a new pig or calf during the coming year.

Just like the Norse, other Germanic tribes both worshipped and feared Odin. The pagan god is portrayed with one eye, a long beard and riding a flying eight-legged steed named Sleipnir. Odin sacrificed his other eye after throwing himself on his spear in a ritual that would allow him to be able to see everything that happens in the world.

It was believed that Odin made nocturnal flights across the sky during the winter, watching over his people, despite only having one good eye, and deciding who should prosper or not in the coming year. This sounds like a terrifying version of Santa Claus for ancient pagans. No mead or meat for you if you are on the naughty list.

Similarly, the Celts believed that the sun stood still for 12 days in the middle of winter and also lit a log in defiance to the winter darkness in order to bring forward a prosperous coming year. During this time, the ancient Celtic priests known as the Druids would cut the mistletoe from the oak trees and hand them out as blessings, symbolising life even during the bleak winter months.

There are dozens of ancient pagan rituals and myths that are at the base of all our modern-day Christmas traditions, but how did the tradition of Christmas itself come to be?

We are told that Christmas originated to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But in reality, there is no historical record of the date of his birth. It was actually the Roman Pope Julius I who, during the fourth century, chose December 25 as the official date to celebrate Jesus’s birth.

According to the Bible, shepherds were watching over their flocks at the time of Jesus’s birth, which means he was probably born during one of the warmer months of the year. Good news for our friends down under who celebrate Christmas during the summer with a “good ol’ barbie at the beach in their sunnies and cozzies and an esky full of cold ones”.

However, the Roman Pope most likely chose December 25 to coincide with the pagan winter solstice festivities and the ancient Roman festival Saturnalia in honour of the god Saturn.

Saturnalia was a time, much like today, of gift-giving, continual partying, and the abuse of both food and drink at a public banquet. However, it was not a time of abuse for the Roman slaves, for as part of the festivities, social order was reversed and slaves were treated like their masters. They ate at the same table and were sometimes also served by the masters themselves. It was considered by all to be the best of days, which is probably why the 25th was chosen to allow pagans to continue to celebrate Saturnalia traditions, in association with Christmas, in the hopes of converting more people to Christianity.

Christmas eventually spread across the world and continued to be celebrated in a drunken, carnival-like festivity, until the Americans reinvented it into a peaceful family holiday during the 19th century. This is just as well because now we save the hangovers for the New Year’s celebrations. The earliest record of New Year Eve celebrations date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. But that is a story for another time.

By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them. 

Ancient pagans would set ablaze giant logs
Inside hiding from Odin and the cold
Rome, the origin of Saturnalia