Friday, 20 December 2013

Casting Light on Saturnalia: The Pagan Origins of the Modern Christmas

There is nothing in any of the four gospels to tell us that Jesus was born in December. Medieval theologians simply considered it likely, on the basis that God's plans must surely be perfect, and that a perfect plan would have the son of God conceived during the feast of the Passover, at the same moment in the calendar as his eventual sacrifice. The placing of Christmas at this time in the year, however, had another advantage, in that the new Christian festival could slip seamlessly into the place formerly occupied by the Pagan festival of Saturnalia.

The Month of December, from a 17th Century copy of a chronography of 354 AD. It shows a comic mask hanging above a table with dice.

Saturnalia honoured the god Saturn, whose temple in Rome stood on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, directly below that of the city's chief god, Jupiter "The Greatest and Best."

The Temple of Saturn in Rome. Photo: Sailko (licensed under GNU).

It was supposedly a festival of joviality, during which serious business was suspended, masters waited on their slaves, and men of all classes donned the conical felt "liberty cap" of the freed slave. Eating and drinking played a key role: it was the custom to sacrifice a suckling pig, of which the god consumed only the bones and fat.

Statue of a Dioscure with a pileus, or "liberty cap." Photo: Carlomorino (image is in the Public Domain).

The Roman writer, Macrobius, whose life straddled the turn of the 4th and 5th Centuries AD, tells us that the festival was originally held on a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, and that this fell on the day before the winter solstice. Julius Caesar, however, added two days to the month of December, placing Saturnalia sixteen days before the Kalends, whilst the later addition of the Sigillaria extended the festivities to seven days. Macrobius shows us the conversations at the dinner parties that took place between twelve friends over the course of the seven days. He does not, however, show them waiting on their slaves, or even dining with them. Instead, having agreed with Seneca on the humanity of slaves, and on the importance of treating them humanely, they proceed to discuss the finer points of Virgil's Aeneid, whilst course after course arrives on their table, as if by magic! One wonders whether the "spirit" of the Roman Saturnalia, like that of the Victorian Christmas, was honoured as frequently in the breach as in the observance.

Sigillaria was the occasion for gift-giving, as described by the Roman poet, Martial:

"Now, while the knights and the lordly senators delight in the festive robe, and the cap of liberty is assumed by our Jupiter; and while the slave, as he rattles the dice-box, has no fear of the Aedile, seeing that the ponds are so nearly frozen, learn alternately what is allotted to the rich and to the poor. Let each make suitable presents to his friends. That these contributions of mine are follies and trifles, and even worse, who does not know? Or who denies what is so evident? But what can I do better, Saturn, on these days of pleasure, which your son himself has consecrated to you in compensation for the heaven from which he ejected you? Would you have me write of Thebes, or of Troy, or of the crimes of Mycenae? You reply, 'Play with nuts.' But I don't want to waste even nuts. reader, you may finish this book wherever you please, every subject is completed in a couple of lines."

Image of dice-players, from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio, Pompeii. Photo: Wolfgang Rieger (image is in the Public Domain).

Gifts listed include a sausage, a parrot, a pastry phallus and even "a barbarian basket ... from the painted Britons" but, then as now, some gifts were unwanted. Catullus's thank-you letter to his friend, Calvus, is hardly effusive:

"If I did not love you more than my eyes, most delightful Calvus, for your gift I should hate you ... for what have I done, or what have I said, that you should torment me so vilely with these poets? Great gods, what a horrible and accursed book ... you have sent to your Catullus, that he might die of boredom the livelong day of the Saturnalia, choicest of days."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

You might like to look at these posts by my fellow authors participating in this seasonal blog-hop:

  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....
  3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk  - Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire -  Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  13. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  14. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  16. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  19. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  21. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
  24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
  25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
  26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  27. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
  28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  29. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression


  1. Thanks Mark for this fascinating look at the customs of Saturnalia. It’s comforting to see that “what to buy the folks for Xmas” was as much a dilemma to the Romans as it is to us!

  2. Thanks, Lucienne, I'll say more about the "what to buy" question tomorrow, along with some of the greetings that people sent with their gifts.

  3. Lovely post, Mark.

    Io Saturnalia!

  4. Thank you--though I knew of the Saturnalia origins of Christmas, you filled in some of the details.

  5. Thanks, Alison & Debra, I had fun researching it. I assumed Macrobius would have more to say about the festivities, but it was Martial who provided most of the insights. I wrote a Saturnalia scene for "An Accidental King," but it was cut because the book was in danger of becoming too long (I'm not sure there's a market for a Roman "War & Peace").

  6. Fascinating post, Mark - I have always known of the link between Saturnalia and Christmas but didn't realise that they had quite so much in common. Never knew about the "liberty cap" before - what fun!

  7. Very interesting, Mark - sounds like the Romans had a great time during Saturnalia!

  8. Thanks, Debbie & Christina. I'm not sure, in practice, that it was as much fun for the slaves as the principle suggested it should be. It probably depended who your master was. There was a specific social category of freedmen (they weren't citizens, but their free-born children would be), whose status was symbolised by the liberty cap (it was only at Saturnalia that everyone wore it). Many freedmen became rich through business, which the aristocracy disdained.

  9. Catullus sounds as if he'd be prone to deliver one star reviews on Amazon ;) I wonder if Calvus ever gave him another gift... Re Saturnalia, would it not be reasonable to assume these festivities harkened back to far more primitive celebrations of the winter solstice?

  10. Thanks, Anna. Catullus's comments on the poetry are as nothing compared to the things he had to say about his ex-girlfriends. Macrobius's dinner guests do speculate about the festivities harkening back to more primitive celebrations, possibly including human sacrifice.

  11. Saturnalia as you describe it sounds good fun. Never mind books of excruciating poetry [or was Catullus merely jealous?], I'd be hoping for gifts of pretty jewellery.

  12. Thoroughly enjoyed this article - thanks Mark!

  13. Great article, Mark. Saturnalia will be key in a future book of mine, so this is a great starting place. Appreciate the information.

  14. Anyone reading French:

    Non, Noël ne "coincide pas plus ou moins" avec les Saturnalies! (et Toussaints n'est pas Samhain, voir commentaires)

    English summary of my argument: Saturnalia end before Christmas starts. And before Christmas there was fasting (now known as Advent season), meaning that far from a seamless continuity with Saturnalia there was a frontal clash between Pagans celebrating Saturnalia and Christians fasting for Advent. Saturnalia started December 17 and ended December 21 (or, in some varieties, 23).

    As to the Chronography from 358, we do not know either which dates it referred to nor whether it was a Christian or still Pagan one (at least from that picture).

  15. There is nothing in any of the four gospels to tell us that Jesus was born in December.

    There is if the wedding at Cana was a January 6. Because Jesus was around his thirtieth birthday a little before.

    I tend to think of the angel serving him after Satan had tempted him as the same who led the angel choir - and the same who served him in Gethsemane.