When Saturnalia became Christmas

When Saturnalia became Christmas

Saturnalia is an ancient Roman pagan festival honouring the agricultural god of Saturn. Traditionally, Saturnalia is held mid-December near the winter solstice and was the origin of many of our Christmas traditions today. 

The Saturnalia festival is in honour of the Roman god Saturn and celebrates the mythical golden age of men. This was thought to be a time when gods and humans lived alongside each other in peace. Some of the traditions run familiar even today, such as gift giving and feasting, however, Saturnalia had some unique traditions of its own. 

Saturnalia would encourage the leaders of Rome to dine alongside the slaves, all being seen as equal. Gifts would be exchanged, much like today, consisting of different types of pottery or wax figures known as sigillaria. Other gifts would also be given such as candles, dice, toys etc. A significant practice that took part during this festival would be the crowning of the ‘ruler of the saturnalia’. This ruler is viewed as the master of proceedings and his wishes need to be obeyed by the guests at the feast. So how did this pagan festival become the Christmas we know today?

Christmas derived from both Roman and pagan traditions. Saturnalia was the first and the second was the Roman celebration of the birth of their sun god Mithra. It is thought that Christians did not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth so adopted the pagan ritual to celebrate his birthday. 

Pagans would decorate their homes with greens, especially evergreens, as they were believed to hold a magic and were untouched by winter. This was in anticipation for the spring that would come next. The Romans were also known to decorate their homes with fir trees. They began by hanging them upside down from the ceiling and would place pieces of metal on them. Germanic pagan tribes would use candles and dried fruit on fir trees as a way to worship the god of woden. Christian faith adopted these decorative ideas during the 1500’s. 

Father Christmas stems from Christian beliefs and wasn’t adapted from any pagan rituals or ancient festivals, but was a celebration of the life of St. Nicholas, who was known for his generosity to the poor and is most famous for saving 3 young innocents. According to Wikipedia’s information – “In one of the earliest attested and most famous incidents from his life, he is said to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them.

That’s where the tradition for hanging stockings by the fire is thought to have come from. People would hang them in hopes that some gold or gifts would be tossed into theirs as well. Interesting, isn’t it?

It’s always nice to know where the roots of our traditions come from and to see how traditions adapt over the years. Truths often get lost over time and celebrations can become commercialised, so looking at where something originates can be very humbling. If you could start a new tradition for Christmas, what would it be? 

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