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Why Christmas is coloured with Saturnalia

Credit: Matt Cardy / Getty Images

December 24, 2018   4 mins

“Put the Christ back in Christmas”, we’re told. “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” they keep saying. Good people speak these things, earnestly and frequently. The other day, a shopping centre up in Glasgow had to back away from its plan not to host a nativity display. Having first opted out, stating that “Thistles prides itself on being religiously and politically neutral”, it had to concede the following week: “we’ve listened carefully to everyone who contacted us about the installation and have decided to reverse our original decision.”

“War on Christmas” stories of this type are an annual staple — even in secular Britain — providing an opportunity for humourless humanists and pious Christians to engage in a seasonal outrage dance. However, while it is true (as many Glaswegians pointed out) that the original decision was Grinch-like and petty, claims from the Church of Scotland about the “true meaning of Christmas” inhering in a nativity display are also off the mark.

Christmas is related to Christianity in the same limited way as Caesar’s wife is to history: only by marriage. Christ was never really in Christmas. In fact, when you celebrate Christmas by eating too much, drinking too much, misbehaving at the office party, and lavishing a fortune on entirely inappropriate presents, you come rather closer to the real spirit of Christmas.


In the early days of the Church, Jesus Christ got along fine without a birthday. The Gospel writers were as unsure about his birth date as we are now. Matthew tells us that Herod the Great was on the Judæan throne when He was born, and then proceeds to narrate Herod’s massacre of the innocents.

Luke, by contrast, times Christ’s birth to coincide with a Roman census. Herod died in 4 BC. Governor Quirinius carried out his census of Judæa in AD 6. Considerable interpretive latitude was thus already present in the narrative. No doubt early Christians knew it and chose to leave well alone.

In any case, birthday parties were worldly, pagan affairs, and Christians did not want to associate the good name of their saviour with any of them. But when Christianity became a faith with claims to universality, the official religion of Constantine’s Empire, this lack of a birthday became something of an embarrassment.

At first, Jesus was simply bolted on to the existing festival, where He rubbed shoulders not only with Saturn but also Sol Invictus (the ‘Unconquered Sun’) and various local deities around the Empire. However, in the period between Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in AD 313 and Theodosius’s criminalisation of all forms of paganism in AD 391, He gradually muscled out the divine competition. In the process, Christmas was coloured permanently by Saturnalia’s existing structure.

And besides, people still expected their 12 days off in December.

Saturn, slip your fetters and come hither,
December tipsy with much wine,
Laughing Mirth and Wanton Wit;
While I tell the glad festival of our merry
Caesar and the banquet’s drunken revel…1

Rome’s Saturnalia was a curious mixture of ancient fertility rite and social event. It celebrated the winter solstice, a time when people believed, perhaps, that they needed to make themselves a warm place. It also recalled — for all Romans — a mythical golden age in the distant past when the world was truly merry, a world without war, slavery, or hunger.

Romans decorated their doorposts with holly and kissed under the mistletoe. They shed formal business attire (the toga) and ‘dressed down’ in garments modern scholars say resembled pyjamas. Shops and businesses closed and people greeted one another in the street with shouts of Io Saturnalia!

On one day of the 12, masters waited on their slaves at table while, in the legions, officers served the ranks. A rose was hung from the ceiling in banqueting rooms, and anything said or done sub rosa went no further than the front door.

Seneca attests that banqueting could get out of hand: he tells of slaves detailed especially to clean up the vomit. The government — in both Rome and the provinces — often put on free public feasts. In the poem by Statius running through this piece, we’re told how the emperor Domitian held one such feast in the colosseum, somehow combining (and the organisation can only be marvelled at) vast quantities of food with entertainment. The Romans, I should add, had no weekend, no useless and unproductive Saturdays and Sundays, so they looked forward to their sanguinary feriae with relish.

And, of course, the Romans also did something for which the proprietors of department stores the world over should be grateful. They exchanged gifts. Originally (before Rome’s citizens acquired great wealth) these were small earthenware statuettes known as sigillaria. By the end of the first century, however, Martial provides a list of such gifts — with accompanying decorations in verse — that reads like the John Lewis Christmas catalogue: backscratchers, socks, medicine chests, comforters, woolly slippers, board-games, gold-inlaid dishes, jewellery — among other things.

That the commercial aspects of Christmas are Roman in origin should not cause surprise. “No one in Gaul ever does business without the involvement of a Roman citizen,” boasts Cicero the lawyer in one of his trial addresses, “there is not a denarius jingling in Gaul which has not been recorded in the account books of Roman citizens”. Set into the mosaic floors of several homes in Pompeii is the phrase Hello Profit! or Profit is Happiness! The Romans were probably history’s first unreconstructed capitalists.

Now, as the shade of night steals on
What song heralds the scattering of largess!
Here are young women stirred to lust, easily bought;
Here is all that wins favour with skill and beauty
Buxom Lydians, cymbals of Cádiz, shouting Syrians…

Statius’ picture is a beguiling one, and it is easy to forget Romans could also be rather correct, formal people, militaristic and bloody-minded all at once. Saturnalia was a time of licence, when people would wink indulgently at each other’s foibles or look the other way. It looks a lot like our Christmas today.

Christmas is a venerable pagan festival, on a sort of permanent loan from Ancient Rome, and is, perhaps, the antithesis of Christianity in the lines of its pagan decent. Some churches know this. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not celebrate Christmas, leaving it to the revellers, appalled as much by the Teutonic Christmas tree as by the libidinous connotations of too much wine and too little thought, and by the merry jingle of all those cash registers.

In that sense, maybe our religion — at least for the moment — is retail, with the god of markets supplanting Saturn, Sol Invictus, and Jesus alike in our affections. Adam Smith is on our money, but not yet on our Christmas trees. Maybe his time will come, as this ancient festival is handed down from age to age.

How many years shall this festival abide?
Age will not destroy so sacred a season!
While the hills of Latium remain,
While Father Tiber flows, while Rome stands
With the Capitol you have made –
It will continue.

  1.  Free translations from Statius’ Silvae i.vi by me, from text as established in the Loeb Classical Library

Helen Dale is an Australian writer and lawyer.


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