"Io Saturnalia!" When one talks about the origins of Christmas, the two most common non-Christian sources are Saturnalia and Yule. However, the more I have learned about this ancient Roman holiday, the more I have to discount a direct ancestry. They were two different holidays that co-existed for more than 100 years, and as Saturnalia became less popular in time, and as the Roman Catholic Church gained more power as Eastern Christianity began to decline, elements of Saturnalia were still celebrated during the winter season, tagging along as long as it could with Christmas rather than directly influencing it.
There were hundreds of winter festivals celebrated in the ancient world that influenced each other in small or big ways. Saturnalia was the biggest one of all, the most loved, the best known. So when people want to find a connection linking Christmas to Paganism, Saturnalia seems like an easy choice. But how similar are they really?
What was Saturnalia?
Italy has a warmer climate than northern countries, and the last of the autumn sowing would have been completed towards the beginning of December. Saturn was a god of agriculture, and the feast of Saturnalia was a time to celebrate the fruits of the harvest, hoping the final crop of the year would be bounteous. Romans believed in a previous Golden Age where food was freely available to all without having to toil for it, and when all were free from slavery and servitude because all needs were met universally under the wise leadership of Saturn. When his golden age ended, humanity descended into chaos, but the god of agriculture still aided in their crops, and the best way to honor him was to remember what life was like during the Golden Age. It was celebrated on December 17th, and, depending on the period, could last anywhere from 3, 5, or 7 days. At the most it would end on December 23rd, two days before the popular belief that the winter solstice was on December 25th at the time.
How was it Celebrated?
In the spirit of remembering the Golden Age, slaves and masters became equal temporarily, and masters would even serve their slaves dinner, and an abundance of food would be served. The pilleus hats worn by freedmen the rest of the year were especially popular during Saturnalia when all could wear them. (I thought it odd that some articles said these hats were the hats worn by slaves and everyone wore them as a sign of equality, but this is not only not true, it goes against the main theme of Saturnalia, remembering the Golden Age when there were no slaves. Pilleus hats were for the free to wear.) But it was far from an idealistic utopia. It became, instead, a time for riotous living and instead of freedom for all, it became a time to throw off all societal norms.
A commoner would be chosen to be the king during the festivities, who would make ridiculous commands like asking someone to sing a song naked, or making everyone walk backwards until the next meal. This tradition may have survived as late as the 17th century in Britain, when it was outlawed, under the name "Lord of the Misrule". But it is hardly something one thinks about in 2020 when one lists off Christmas traditions, and was never part of properly celebrating Christmas itself, merely being something people did during the Christmas season.
Another huge aspect of Saturnalia was the freedom of slaves to participate in otherwise forbidden activities like gambling and other vices. All 7 of the deadly sins got their chance to shine, really, but gambling was especially popular. Women and children engaged in the activity as well. We even know some of the games they played and how to play them. (Also, I have a theory that there is some kind of connection here to why Jewish children are allowed to gamble on Hanukkah, but for now it's pure speculation on my part. Everyone else does gamble more during the Christmas season as well, generally, but it is not part of the formal festivities like the modern dreidel is for Hanukkah. For me the biggest clue for a possible connection is that children are otherwise forbidden to gamble. Secular gambling at Christmas today probably has more to do with Christmas bonuses and extra time off than any Saturnalia tradition.)
The final part of Saturnalia was gift giving. It was mostly trinkets like candles, sweets and small toys for the children. Most popular were small clay or wax figurines called sigillaria, and masters would often give their servants an allowance at the beginning of Saturnalia to buy sigillaria as gifts. Even during Roman times there was some debate on whether these trinkets had religious significance or not. There were rumors that that had originally been made to be sacrificed to the gods in place of actual human sacrifices, but others thought the idea was ridiculous. Another popular gift was poetry, often of a silly nature. But while there were gift exchanges, there have been gift exchanges in many holidays all over the world, so it is hard to give credit to Saturnalia for modern Christmas gift exchanges, especially since gift exchanges between real people is fairly new to the holiday. There were gifts from Christmas deities and/or saints, from the church, from the aristocrats in our records, but the actual practice of regular people giving gifts to each other during Christmas is a relatively new thing.
There are some similarities to ancient Saturnalia decorations and modern Christmas, but I think these are most likely coincidental. The Romans would decorate outdoor plants including shrubberies, and yes, trees, with ornaments and ribbons. They would bring in garlands of green plants to hang in their homes. However, the plants of ancient Rome and the ones we associate with Christmas are very different. Northern Europeans were decorating their homes in mid-winter with holly, mistletoe and pine boughs before Christianity. Admittedly ivy is a traditional Christmas plant the Roman's would have used and is not indigenous to Northern Europe.
Christmas amidst other holidays
While I plan on covering some of the other winter holidays in more depth in future posts, and what influence if any they had on Christmas, I will still say here that there were MANY winter festivals that were held in the winter, and festivals have a way of including things that humans love, such as merry making, feasting, decorating, and giving. This is part of being human. It is also a very human thing to see patterns and draw conclusions, whether those patterns are related or not. We also have a knack for seeing things we like and appropriating them for our own use. It would be foolish to say Christmas didn't borrow anything from Saturnalia, but to then draw the conclusion that Christmas comes from Saturnalia altogether is equally foolish. History is messy, and it can be very hard asking the right questions to find the right answers.
Certainly Saturnalia was widespread, but Christmas grew on its own terms, and the fact that the two holidays met and were practiced side by side for decades, never truly melding, shows us that they really were distinct holidays with separate purposes. They aren't really even that similar. Christmas isn't a harvest festival. Christmas doesn't hearken back to the Christian parallel of the Golden Age, namely The Garden of Eden (although Adam and Eve do have their feast day on December 24th, any connection is pure speculation.) Saturnalia does not hearken to the birth of a god to celebrate his epiphany as Christmastide does. They are simply different holidays celebrated at the same time of the year. But that's not as fun of a story for clickbait, not the kind of story that goes viral. And I suppose knowing this may not make me the fun one at parties if I share my own understanding, since Pagans and Christians alike love to trace Christmas back to Saturnalia in one form or another. But it is what it is, and I'm just doing my best to share the results of my own research. Saturnalia is still a fun holiday we can remember and talk about during the season though, and that's what I still intend to do. Io Saturnalia!!
- Christmas and its supposed Pagan links (chosen because the author is an academic classicist and I really like his blog overall. Debunking modern myths about the ancient world is kind of his thing.)
- Saturnalia (A nice overview of the holiday with some interesting references about the calendar adaptations.)
- Yo, Saturnalia! (Chosen for it's commentary on the food eaten during the holiday. Everyone knows it's all about food, right?)
Christmas History Advent Calendar
Saturnalia is day 17.