Saturnalia, Christmas and the unconquered sun

It’s nearly Christmas, and I can’t resist being a grump, put it down to my calvinist upbringing which has left me thinking that Cromwell was a dangerous liberal when it came to Christmas festivities.

There’s a meme out there that Christmas was a Christian rebranding of Saturnalia, the Roman end of year festival known for its drunkeness debauchery and use of festive greenery.

Now its true the two overlap, but they don’t really have anything to do with each other except time of year.

No one of course really knows when Jesus was born, so when they were looking for a suitable date some Christian groups in the 300’s chose the winter solstice.

By the 300’s the Romans on the whole didn’t really believe in the old gods any more. Yes, peasants out the the fields might have still been leaving offerings at sacred wells and stones, but that’s really no different from what one sees in rural Ireland or Mexico. (And not just in Christianity, you see something similar in Thailand where various Confucian luminaries and Daoist gods, not to mention local deities get mixed up into Bhuddism)

Anyway by the 300’s the Roman empire was a multiethnic multicultural society. Lots of languages, lots of gods, lots of overlapping festivals – I often think it must have looked a bit like contemporary India with all its flavours of Hinduism, Bhuddism, Islam, specialist cults like Jainism, a bit of Zoroastrianism, a mix of different forms of Christianity introduced by the British and other colonialists, not to mention odd religions up in the hills that never quite assimilated to one of the dominant beliefs.

So, needing a birthdate for Jesus, some groups of Christians fastened on the Winter solstice. The winter solstice is of course significant to a whole swag of religions due to the birth/rebirth metaphor, but crucially, in the context of the Roman East, it was also sacred to Mithrasism which was giving a lot of other religions a run for its money, and was widely adopted by the Army.

Solar cults were definitely the thing in the 300’s Roman East so much so that Sol Invictus on the 25th of Decemberwas a well adopted holiday.

At this point people usually pull up short and say that 25 December isn’t the solstice.

True, it isn’t now, but it was then.

When Julius Caesar reformed the Roman Calendar back in 47 BC they decided that a year was roughly 365.25 days long so that you then added a leap year every fourth year. Now, it’s actually a bit less than that which is why we have the rule that if the year ends in 00 we only a leap year if its divisible by 400, not 4. This is why 1900 was 365 days long, but 2000 was 366 days long and why 2100 will only be 365 days long.

So buy the 300’s the effect of this was that the calendar was out of sync by three days so that the solstice, which was supposed to occur officially on December 25, actually occurred three days earlier. However the Romans quietey ignored this problem and continued to pretend it was on 25/12. (You see a similar effect today with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches celebrating Christmas on January 7, simply because they’ve stuck with the Julian calendar and its gradual drift of 3 days every 400 years.

So Christmas really has very little to do with Saturnalia, but a lot to do with solstice celebrations, which as we’ve said are usually tied to death and rebirth. So think of Christmas on December 25 as some slick, opportunistic and very successful marketing by some of the early church fathers …



About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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1 Response to Saturnalia, Christmas and the unconquered sun

  1. Pingback: My December Solstice on this #Creepfest I bleed ink and walk with Christmas Spirits « Wrestling the Muse

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