Io Saturnalia!

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.

The Romans also celebrated Juvenalia, in honor of children, during the solstice, and on December 25, members of the upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithra.

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.

Io Saturnalia!

Escultura_Saturnalia_de_Ernesto_Biondi


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)

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15 thoughts on “Io Saturnalia!

  1. I don’t agree. “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” – no, the Christians changed it, and kept it as a lasting celebration. It would be nothing but for the Christians transforming it. Christmas (despite the let’s-try-and-be-relevant-brigade) is not a pagan festival. It is a Christian festival these days. The word comes from CHRIST and MASS. It is the CHRIST-MASS. It has been transformed for 2000 years. The rest, today for those who what to pretend to be Green, is trendy superficiality.

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    1. Except that the exact part you have in quotation was taken from the Saturnalia festivals. The idea to celebrate the birth of Christ at this particular time was a conscious decision made by the church and even in the early days there were religious people against it.

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      1. Indeed it was a very conscious decision, and done centuries after the birth of Jesus, as you mentioned. Totally arbitrary. As was taking the festivities around “Easter,” a pagan goddess, and applying them to Christianity. At least in the case of Christmas, the powers that be changed the name to reflect the god for whom they stole the day. With Easter, they didn’t even bother. Maybe they figured no one would notice. They were wrong. I enjoy Christmas as a time to spend with friends and to remember how good people can be to each other when they want to be, regardless of belief in an invisible guy. There is absolutely nothing unique to Christianity about that. Just as there is nothing unique about Christmas to Christianity other than the fact 4th century Christians changed the name of a pagan holiday to reflect their god whilst keeping practically all else the same.

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      2. This isn’t to undermine the enjoyment people get from holidays at all either. It’s just that the specific holidays we’re enjoying get passed down from one group of people to another. Names may change, but the feeling and concept of the holiday is the same. Speaking of Santa, check out a Finnish movie called “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” for a really fun take on the Santa myth. It shows where the real myth came from, then expands on it in a unique, fun way.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Easter is a pagan festival as well. My point was simply that festivals adapt over time, and it’s “silly” to try to revert back. Here in New Zealand, a teacher took the cross off the hot-cross buns on Good Friday because it reeked of religion.

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      1. Religion only reeks when you don’t refrigerate it properly. I once had a Star of David that wound up smelling like dead fish cause I took it outta the fridge and forgot to put it back in. Ugh! Had to fumigate my whole apt after that. No need for Christmas to revert back to anything as it hasn’t really changed much in several thousand years. Only change is in the name of the god that’s being honored on the day. In the case of Christmas, the main god being honored these days is the great deity called Capital Gain. Gotta love that. What exactly is a “hot-cross bun” btw? Sounds like something someone would get tattooed on their ass. “I got me a hot-cross tattoo on my bun, man! You gotta see it! It is AWESOME!! Although I have to sleep with my ass in the fridge every night to keep it from reeking. Wouldn’t want my butt to reek of spoiled religion now, would I?”

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      2. Taking the cross off hot cross buns is a bit extreme, especially as the whole point of the “hot cross buns” was religious in nature. Otherwise it’s just a regular bun. We have Easter buns in Jamaica and then regular spiced bun throughout the rest of the year. Same bun, different packaging 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, now I get it! The buns you can eat with the crosses on them! I’ve had those. Hell, as long as they taste good, who the bloody hell cares about crosses on ’em? I certainly wouldn’t stop eating donuts just cause someone decided to put an inverted cross on em. They’re too good to give up.

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