The Pagan Origins of Christmas (part one)

Just in time for Christmas, Villa Finale Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears writes about Christmas’ pagan origins in her latest blog post. Sit back and enjoy!

By Sara Breshears

Did you know that up until the 16th century Christmas was less about celebrating the birth of Christ, but more about having a wild and crazy party? The story of Christmas, unsurprisingly, has a long and very colorful history. Many of the staples of the holiday now have less than Christian origins and for centuries early Christians didn’t even celebrate the birth of Christ! 

Many of us can probably think of a few holidays that Christmas was based around, but what were they and who or what did they celebrate? While I could very easily talk about the sixteen or so holidays that were celebrated in Europe around the winter solstice, here we will just cover the big three, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yuletide! 

The Romans Loved to Cut Loose! 

Humans have been celebrating on and around the Winter Solstice for millennia. By the time of the Roman Republic this festival was called Saturnalia. Saturnalia is probably the ancient holiday most of us have heard associated with Christmas and is one of the oldest. 

Saturnalia was a major religious holiday celebrating the Roman god, Saturn or Saturnus in Latin, who was described as a god of agriculture, wealth, plenty, and liberation. After the Romans conquered Greece, he was merged with the Greek god Cronus, and took on the aspect of being the god of time. 

The ancient Roman writer Livy claimed that Saturnalia originated in the 5th century BCE, but there is some evidence that it began even earlier than that!   

Originally celebrated only on December 17th, it was later expanded to three days, and eventually became a seven day celebration, lasting until December 23rd. The Emperor Augustus, who was a bit of a stickler, reduced Saturnalia back to a more modest three-day holiday, but his efforts were in vain as the Emperor Caligula increased the length back to five. It seems most people celebrated the whole seven days anyway! 

Temple of Saturn (from ancient.eu)

Festivities began in the Temple of Saturn that stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The statue of Saturn in the temple, we are told from ancient sources, would normally have wool bound around its feet. This would be removed from the statue as an act of liberation, followed by the sacrificing of animals and then a huge public feast. If you saw a friend at the feast a common salutation would be “Io Saturnalia!”  

 In private, families would give gifts, such as jellied figs, candles, and clay or wax figures called sigillaria. A saturnalicius princeps (ruler of Saturnalia) would be selected from the lowest members of a household (which included the slaves). The princeps act as a master of ceremony and allowed to carry out light-hearted mischief. They would give orders like ‘Toss them in the fountain!” Or “Sing the bawdiest song you know!” One ancient author, Catullus, called Saturnalia the “the jolliest of times.” 

Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, Roman society was quite strict about decorum and social conventions. Saturnalia allowed for a relaxing of those social conventions, and citizens could wear more informal, almost garish clothes, hats that normally only freed men (former slaves) would wear, get drunk in public and gamble! Reportedly the writer Pliny built a “soundproof room” so that he could work during celebrations! The party pooper. 

No one was allowed to work during Saturnalia, not even the slaves, and one of the most interesting aspects of this holiday was the role-reversal. Slaves were allowed to celebrate along with their masters. Sometimes dining with them or even being served by their masters!  

Saturnalian license also meant that slaves could disrespect their masters without threat of punishment. Scholars are not sure if these practices were common throughout the history of Saturnalia or if they changed over time, but it is mentioned again and again in the ancient source materials. 

Saturnalia was celebrated throughout Roman history even long after it was removed from the official calendar, so much so that prominent early Christian theologian St. Augustus preached against it in the 5th Century CE! 

Pope Julius I (from Wikicommons)

Pope Julius I in the 4th Century CE decreed that the honoring of Christ’s birth be celebrated on December 25th to coincide with the Saturnalia Festival. Some historians theorize this was done to create an alternative to Saturnalia. So, while celebrating one god a person might swing by another temple to honor another god, just to cover their bases. A bit of sneaky PR right there! 

Interestingly, early Christians did not celebrate birthdays, and indeed did not commemorate the birth of Christ for the first two to three centuries of Christianity, but birthday celebrations were quite common in the Roman culture so this idea of birthdays must have been slowly adopted over time.  

Sol Invictus Gets His Kickus! 

In the latter half of the Roman Empire, the cult Sol Invictus grew in popularity. Originally worshipped by Roman soldiers, he symbolized victory by overcoming the darkness of night. 

Emperor Aurelian, who had an unprecedented string of victories in the eastern half of the empire, came back to Rome and established a new cult of Sol Invictus to be worshipped alongside the more traditional Roman gods, and dedicated a new temple and games (ludis) to the sun god on December 25th. Only the most important gods were celebrated with games, such as with Zeus and the Olympic Games. As far as games went, Sol Invictus’s specialty seemed to be chariot races.  

Chariot races: not for the faint of heart! (from telegraph.co.uk)

Chariot races, like the NASCAR or baseball games of today, were major events with everyone turning out and rooting for their favorite team, whether it was the blue, green, red or white team, accompanied with drinking and gambling. Chariot teams would scout the provinces of the empire and the local circuses to find up and coming charioteers to train. 

These were dangerous events for horses and drivers alike with the average life expectancy of charioteers being twenty-five years old. For the ludis solis there were an unprecedented thirty-six chariot races held on December 25th, the usual number being twelve! 

Some scholars think that this connection with the sun, and Christ sometimes being referred to as the ‘Sun of Righteousness,’ as well as early debates about when the conception and birth of Christ actually took place, also lead to the 25th of December being chosen as the day of Jesus’s birth. While the first Christmas celebration is recorded as occurring in Rome in 336 CE, deep divisions in the early church led to the holiday losing prominence. Instead Epiphany celebrations overshadowed Christmas for years to come. It regained some of its importance in 800 CE with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, but we will get to that later. 

Yule Be Sorry If You go Outside 

Another ancient holiday we associate with Christmas is Yule. Yule, sometimes called Yuletide, was celebrated by Germanic peoples in Northern Europe, with Yule being associated with Odin, who had the name Jolfaor in old Norse which translates to “Yule Father,” with Yule possibly being another name for referring to the Norse gods in general. 

Yule might have been originally a holiday to celebrate and venerate the dead and the lengthening of days. There is evidence that Winter Solstice festivals held at Stonehenge held in the Late Bronze Age in England were also for the celebration of the dead. 

Yule has been associated with the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of hunters led by Odin, chasing elusive prey. To see the Wild Hunt was considered a bad omen or precursor to war and famine. It was also believed that if you saw the Wild Hunt you would be taken by it. So overall, Yule was a good reason to celebrate inside. 

Fun aside, variations of the Wild Hunt have made their way into modern storytelling such as in The Witcher video game series or the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Stan Jones! 

During Yule farmers would bring ale and grain to the local temple, along with animals, usually cattle, which were sacrificed. The blood of the animals was considered sacred and would be sprinkled on the walls of the temple and on the statues of the gods and even on those present, while the meat was cooked. A sacred boar or Yule Boar would also sometimes be sacrificed as part of the celebrations, and to swear on its bristles was considered a sacred vow. The meat would be eaten during the festivities and this is where Christmas ham originated from!  

“In Norse mythology, Odin was revered as the All-Father god and the Raven God.” (from worldhistoryedu.com)

Toasts would be held, with one to Odin, for victory and strength to the king, another to Njord and Freyr for harvests and peace, and then a third toast to departed family and friends.  

Then the celebrations would really begin with singing and dancing and story-telling! Yule-singing, much like the English, wassailing, was a group of people going from house to house singing and offering up a drink from a wassail bowl (think hard apple cider) in exchange for gifts. It also could refer to the tradition of going to the orchards in areas of Europe that produced ciders and offering blessings to the trees in hopes of a good harvest the following year. This practice continued after the Christianization of Europe with priests performing the blessings of the trees. 

“Yule” be pulling this one all the way to the next town! Victorian Yule Log Christmas card, ca. 1870 (from quadcitiesdaily.com)

Yule logs were burned and it was considered good luck to keep a piece to be used for kindling for the next year’s Yule log. Evergreens, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe all of which were thought to protect against evil spirits were hung in door frames.  Even the Romans would hang mistletoe during Saturnalia to protect the household, and associated it with love and fertility.  

Since humans have celebrated the Winter Solstice, which marks the days becoming longer, for thousands of years, scholars believe that ever greens were chosen to decorate the festivities to provide some much needed ‘color relief’ from dark and overcast days of the middle of winter. It was only later on in human history that they acquired the associations with love, fertility, and so on. 

Part two of “The Pagan Origins of Christmas” will be posted soon!

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