Did the Romans invent Christmas?

The Temple of Saturn at the west end of the Roman Forum in Rome. Photo courtesy of David Stuttard The ruins of the Temple of Saturn still dominate the west end of the Forum in Rome

"Io Saturnalia!" Two thousand years ago this was the seasonal greeting which would have chimed out across most of Europe, not "Merry Christmas". The Roman mid-winter festival of misrule has heavily influenced many Christmas traditions - including the time of year we celebrate.

At no point is a date for Jesus's birth given in the Bible, but references to the lambing season have led some theologians to conclude that he was born in spring. Why then do we celebrate his birth in the middle of winter?

"Christmas in December is a Western, Roman idea whereas in the Eastern Church it falls later, around the feast of the Epiphany in early January," explains Dr Matthew Nicholls, senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading.

For seven days from the 17 December it was party season in Roman times. Homes were decorated, parties held and slaves became masters - at least for one banquet. It was the start of a lengthy mid-winter period of merry-making and the season of goodwill - Saturnalia.

Christian or Pagan?

Christmas decorations on a tree
  • The Sigillaria - held on the 23 December - was a day of present-giving in ancient Rome
  • During the Saturnalia, wax tapers and torches were lit - in a similar way to our advent candles. Houses were also decorated with wreaths of evergreen plants
  • Over-eating, gambling, drinking, singing and sharing witty tales were all part of Saturnalia celebrations. Those who did not join in were considered scrooges and humbugs
  • Kissing under the Mistletoe is associated with worship of the Viking goddess Frigg
  • Viking and Saxon worship of trees - especially the oak, is often cited as the origin of our Christmas trees which first became popular in Germany
  • During Yalda - the birthday of Mithras which is held on 21 December - ancient Persians ate dried fruits and nuts. The festival is still marked by some Iranians today

Saturnalia originated as a farmers' festival and commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest.

During this festival, there was a reversal of traditional roles, with slaves wearing fine garments and sitting at the head of the table. Families gave each other gifts, and homes were decorated with wreathes and greenery. Gambling was allowed and the festival is described as a joyful period.

Over-eating, drinking, singing and gift-giving are all things that we associate with Christmas - another, more modern, season of goodwill.

"The Christian Church appropriated quite a few Pagan festivals and Pagan activities," according to Sam Moorhead, national finds adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins at the British Museum.

So many of our Christian traditions can be traced to Roman mid-winter festivals that a time-travelling centurion would feel quite at home sitting around the table for the Christmas banquet or joining in office party revelries.

"People would go round the streets and there was merry-making and singing songs, which some people associate with modern carolling," adds Mr Moorhead.

"You were also not allowed to give lectures at the time, unless they were witty or funny - which could be seen as the origin of cracker jokes."

Originally a one-day feast at the end of autumn, Saturnalia gradually moved to later and later dates, with longer celebrations, throughout the Roman period.

By the time of Christian conversion it was running into and incorporating a number of festivals. These included the Opalia - the festival day for Saturn's consort Ops - on the 19 December and the Sigillaria- the day of present-giving - on the 23 December. The 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti - the birthday of the 'invincible' Roman sun-god Sol.

Cancelling Saturnalia was unthinkable, so Christian Rome converted it to a Christian holy day instead.

"If Christianity moves Christmas into December, at the Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol, you can then fade out these other festivals and incorporate elements into the Christian festival. You can attempt to move on as if nothing has happened." explains Mr Moorhead.

To ban or not to ban?

Pagan ritual and Christianity coexisted for many decades after the conversion of Constantine the Great. This period was not always harmonious, especially in the fourth century, with tense and bloody episodes between the new Christian elite and those who still worshipped the old gods.

Simon Sebag Montefiore looks at some of the Christian-pagan hybrid celebrations

Festivals like the Lupercalia - held in February - where men ran through the streets of Rome naked, whipping women with strips of goat-hide, were still marked by Pagans and Christians alike.

According to Dr Nicholls, it may have seemed expedient for the new Christian ruling classes to allow Pagan traditions to be merged with the new state religion.

"Pagan temples and shrines were a frequent focus of religious conflict, and bans or interdicts provoked riots and civil unrest.

"In that climate a complete ban on Pagan worship would be provocative, and allowing some festival practices to continue under a new religious regime would be a way of softening the transition."

But there have been more modern attempts to ban aspects of Christmas because of their links with Paganism.

Carolling, or rather the dancing and drinking that often accompany it, has yo-yoed in and out of favour with Churches because of its association with the more debauched side of pagan festivals like Saturnalia.

The Puritan-led Parliament of Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in church - except for a plain service of prayer. Dancing, feasting, gift-giving and carol concerts were doubly damned as 'Papal and Pagan'. The edict was incredibly unpopular and often openly flouted until it was overturned during the Restoration.

'Too embedded'

"The social need for a festival of some sort around that date [mid-winter] would have made Saturnalia or Christmas a powerful social institution, as it still is. Too popular and embedded to be easily done away with." explains Dr Nicholls.

As well as Roman traditions, rites and rituals from the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons have survived into our modern celebration. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is sometimes attributed to the Viking goddess of love and marriage - Frigg - whose legend is associated with the plant. The origin of the traditional Christmas tree may also linked to Pagan tree-worship.

While such traditions have been amalgamated into Christmas festivities the influence of the Romans, especially in terms of the festival calendar, is clear.

Roman child's sarcophagus - photo courtesy of the British Museum Children played games similar to marbles with nuts while their parents used them as gambling tokens

Archaeological finds highlight the Pagan heritage of many familiar traditions. In Rome, nuts were used as gambling tokens and in games similar to our marbles throughout the Saturnalia period. A sarcophagus of a Roman boy in the British Museum is carved with pictures of children playing with nuts during the festival period.

Even some quirkier Christmas traditions have eerie parallels with the Romans.

In Oaxaca city, Mexico, every 23 December since 1897 they have hosted the Noche de rĂ¡banos - the Night of the Radishes - whereby radishes sculpted to depict Nativity scenes and dioramas are exhibited in the square.

Although it's a relatively recent innovation to the Christmas calendar, the people of Oaxaca would perhaps be amused to hear that at the famous Roman fort of Vindolanda, next to Hadrian's Wall, around AD 100, a writing tablet records a slave specifically requesting another slave to buy radishes for the Saturnalia.

Although it's likely to be merely a coincidence, Mr Moorhead says it is perhaps the most intriguing discovery in his research. Has the notion of radishes at Saturnalia somehow survived and spread far beyond Europe like so many other Roman traditions?

He adds: "There are at least half a dozen pagan Roman rituals which have made their way into modern Christmases."

So next time you kiss under the mistletoe, sing a carol or pull a Christmas cracker think back a few thousand years to the masters and slaves of the Roman empire and the festival of misrule.

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