Maybe Santa Claus should ditch the red coat for some gladiator armor. Hear us out.
Did you know that the ancient Romans celebrated a holiday around the 25th of December each year? Beyond just its date, experts have noted that this holiday – known as Saturnalia – had some eery similarities to the modern celebration of Christmas… leading to serious speculation about an alternate Christmas origin story.
Is it possible that the Romans invented Christmas? Let’s weigh the evidence.
What Was Saturnalia?
Saturnalia was a public holiday celebrated in Rome prior to the arrival of Christianity. It was considered a time for great feasts, extending goodwill to one’s neighbors, and showing generosity to those less fortunate. Hmm, not so different from Christmastime…
But that’s not all. Saturnalia also featured decorated trees, as well as a ritual exchange of gifts.
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Records of Saturnalia date back to as early as 217 BC, when the Roman people would gather to mark the end of the harvest and honor Saturn, the god of sowing. This date was later moved back on the calendar to align with the winter solstice, and the seven-day festival reached its peak on December 25th.
The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described it as “the best of times.” The people enjoyed relaxed dress codes and exchanged small gifts such as toys and candles.
Tree decoration was also an important activity. However, instead of cutting down whole trees, the people would cut single branches and turn them into wreaths to decorate their homes and temples. Living trees were decorated where they grew with ornaments representing the sun and stars.
The state even postponed executions and forbid any declarations of war during Saturnalia, to make sure everyone was allowed to enjoy the festivities.
The holiday eventually fell out of favor with the rise of Christianity and Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine. These developments have led some to wonder if Saturnalia, like so many other pagan festivals and traditions, was simply Christianized and rebranded as “Christmas.”
Did Christmas Derive from Saturnalia?
The question of whether Saturnalia actually turned into Christmas is a matter of some debate.
Backers of this theory point to the many similarities between the two holidays – their date on the calendar, the spirit of the season, and the many activities that people took part in.
They also note an interesting fact: the first records of Christmas being celebrated as the birth of Jesus also come from Rome.
Indeed, the Roman Philocalian calendar in the year 354 AD contains a reference to Christmas as a holiday on December 25th specifically commemorating the birth of Christ.
Coincidence, or evidence?
Skeptics say coincidence. For despite the similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia, these doubters note there are plenty of differences, too.
For example, unlike Christmas, Saturnalia involved some… curious practices. One of the most prominent was the flipping of roles between masters and slaves; it was routine during Saturnalia for slave owners to swap clothes with their slaves, and to serve them at the table.
To be fair, that doesn’t exactly scream typical “Christmas cheer”.
There are other reasons to be skeptical, too. The poet Lucian of Samosata, who lived in the 2nd century AD, wrote a poem titled Saturnalia in which he includes the god Saturn explaining what the holiday entails:
“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”
Alcohol certainly has its part in the tradition of the holiday, but naked singing? Ice dunks? Those aren’t popular Christmas activities last we checked.
Plus, the doubters note, there is historical evidence that Christ’s birthdate (and thus the date of Christmas itself) was set independent of Saturnalia.
Around the 4th century AD, Christianity was spreading across the civilized world. As its customs and traditions expanded, it was decided that the holiday of Christmas would be created to commemorate the birth of Christ.
Experts note that while church leaders likely had no hard proof that Jesus was born in late December, they relied on a biblical argument to make their case.
They argued that because the world was supposedly created around the spring equinox (which occurs in late March), God would have decided that Jesus also be conceived on that date. If you fast forward nine months from late March, then the Virgin Mary would have given birth to Christ right around the winter solstice.
The takeaway? Jesus's December 25th birthdate isn't entirely arbitrary, as some advocates of the Saturnalia origin story argue.
Nonetheless, we may never know for sure just how much influence the pagan celebration of Saturnalia had on this major Christian holiday.
What do you make of the idea that the Romans invented Christmas?