It is the main celebration of Christianity. One would think that it commemorates a high point in its development. A unique and unrepeatable date. If that’s what you think, maybe you don’t know the pagan rite that gave birth to Christmas.
It all began with the Saturnalia. The rite with which the Roman Empire welcomed winter. “The choice of December 25 as the birth of Jesus has nothing to do with the Bible. It was a quite conscious and explicit choice. The winter solstice was used to symbolize Christ’s role as the light of the world.” So says Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford.
“New beliefs were going to be better accepted if they didn’t clash with ancient non-Christian customs,” he added.
Saturnalia, the pagan rite that gave rise to Christmas, was a Roman festival. It celebrated what they called “the rebirth” of the year at the winter solstice. In the Julian calendar it was celebrated on December 25. But the feast began eight days earlier, on December 17. There the rules that ordinarily governed were reversed. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants… among other conventions in reverse. Houses were decorated with greenery, candles were lit and gifts were given. Sound familiar?
Carnival and relaxation
“This celebration was held in honor of the god Saturn. Social order was relaxed in a carnival atmosphere.” Australian historian Marguerite Johnson points out. She says Saturn was the main deity for the Romans. “He was the god of weather, agriculture and supernatural things.”
“As part of the festivities, the Romans exchanged gifts. Candles, woolen slippers, hats and even socks. And they did it between families, while the slaves enjoyed their free time.”
There was another celebration. It was the “birth of the unconquered or unconquered sun” (Natalis Solis Invicti). It was celebrated every December 25, according to various documents from Roman times.
By the end of the Roman era, Christmas was already part of the Roman calendar. It was a gradual process, historians point out. It had to do with a hybridization or amalgamation of traditions.
“Christians adapted to these established rites and made them their own,” Johnson notes. As early as the fourth century, everything was written down. Between 320 and 353, Pope Julius I fixed the solemnity of Christmas on December 25. Perhaps as a strategy to convert the Romans.
In 449 Pope Leo I established that date for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. And Emperor Justinian in 529 declared it an official feast of the empire. Then it began to be taken for granted that Jesus was born in December.
But at some point historians rescued the truth. Since then the search has been on for the exact date of Jesus’ birth. Some historians place it in mid-March or early April.
But what is certain is that the influence is very strong. And we will continue to celebrate with gifts, parties, and family gatherings every December 25th.