The Roman God Saturn presided over Saturnalia, the first of three midwinter festivals—a harvest celebration, the birth of the sun god, and a new year’s observance—that collectively formed the Roman celebration of midwinter.   Saturn’s preferred mode of transportation was a flying sleigh pulled by two serpents, and the flying sleigh, beard, and pointed hat create a strong resemblance to Santa. 

While early Winter Solstice celebrations reached back thousands of years before Christ, the best-known celebration was Rome’s Saturnalia, a midwinter tribute to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Saturnalia began about five hundred years before the birth of Christ and continued for about five hundred years after, and Roman historians have documented the celebration in great detail.

Saturnalia was the first of three festivals that created a holiday season, not unlike our own. Saturnalia, a harvest festival (and, thus, the Roman counterpart to Thanksgiving, typically on December 17 and ran from three to six days depending on the emperor in power. On December 25, the Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, which originally marked the death and rebirth of the Roman sun god Sol and the Persian sun-god Mithras. The third festival, Kalends, celebrated the New Year, creating a three-week holiday period that is often called simply Saturnalia.

The third holiday, Kalends, was essentially a New Year’s party lasting up to five days and involving many of the same activities–or, some would say, excesses–as Saturnalia. In a passage that seems designed to rebut the claim that our modern Christmas season has become too expensive and too commercial, fourth-century pagan Libanius of Antioch described Kalends as follows:

The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend. . . . Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence becomes suddenly extravagant. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow . . .

People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides. . . . It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year. . . . The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people, it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. It also allows, so far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom. . . . Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.

Saturnalia was marked by many of the same elements we associate with the celebration of Christmas: decorations of evergreens, an abundance of lights ranging from small candles traditionally given as gifts to large bonfires, freedom from work, socializing, gift-giving, elaborate feasting in which the wealthy Romans and slaves reversed roles, and plenty of drinking from the wines made during the fall harvest. It was also a period in which the normal rules of propriety were suspended, allowing activities including gambling (typically dice), cross-dressing, and fertility rites, the precise nature of which is seldom explained. While the combination of elaborate lights, weeks of feasting and drinking, gambling, erotic clothing, and carnal escapades create an atmosphere we normally associate with Las Vegas–at least until the CDC outlawed the buffets–most Christmas traditions have their root in the Roman festivities.

During the fourth century A.D., after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Dies Natalis Solis Invictus was converted to the Feast of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus. There is no evidence that Jesus was actually born on December 25, and there would not have been any shepherds tending their flocks in the fields in the middle of winter. The designation of December 25 as the birth of Jesus, however, can be explained as a purely pragmatic decision. If the empire had banned the ceremonies under the name of Christianity, it would have been exceedingly difficult to convince the pagan Romans to convert to Christianity. Allowing the empire to cease honoring the pagan gods while maintaining the popular festival as a Christian event satisfied everyone.

Tom A. Jerman