Why do we celebrate Christmas in December?
“Io Saturnalia!” was the seasonal greeting which would have echoed across most of Europe 2,000 years ago and not “Merry Christmas”.
It has long been a tradition to celebrate winter festivals. The winter solstice was a time of great celebration that the midpoint of winter had passed, the nights would now be getting shorter, and it looked like everyone would survive the cold months.
In Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated in honor of Saturn, the god of Agriculture. From December 17 to 25, food and drink flowed in abundance and servants and masters exchanged roles. Businesses and courts were closed and everyone took part in the celebrations, including the exchanging of gifts. People ran naked through the streets at night, singing and making merry.
In the 4th century, the Church made a decision to start celebrating the birth of Jesus. Up until this point, Easter was the only Christian celebration and Jesus’ birth was never a consideration. Pope Julius I decreed December 25 to be the Feast of Nativity — the day on which the church would officially recognize the birth of Christ. It is widely thought that this day was chosen so that other pagan winter solstice celebrations, already occurring during this period, would be absorbed as a part of the celebrations of the birth of Jesus. This would be more acceptable to the vast majority of people than cancelling Saturnalia and other secular celebrations altogether.
Today, Christmas is a commercial success. But we owe all the gift-giving, partying, lights, and feasting to the pagans and early Romans who existed well over 2,000 years ago.
Featured image: “Saturnalia” by Antoine Callet (CC0 1.0)
Image above: “Saturnalia” by sculptor Ernesto Biondi, 1899. A bronze copy of 1909, the Botanical Garden of Buenos Aires. Original in Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. (CC 3.0)