The Holiday Saturnalia
Saturnalia is a holiday celebrated by the Romans that lasted from December 17th until December 23rd, which is a period of the winter season that we now typically, in the modern age, associate as the Christmas season. Saturnalia is a holiday that existed to celebrate Saturn, a god in the Roman Pantheon.
The Holiday Christmas
Christmas is a holiday celebrated by Christians to remember the birth of their lord, Jesus, and is observed on December 24th and December 25th. However, there are some branches of Christianity such as the Orthodox which celebrate Christmas on a different day because of their usage of a different calendar.
Christmas also found its origin as a holiday celebrated by the Romans, and Christmas was first celebrated by the Romans in the year 336 AD on December 25th because this was the day that the Romans placed the Winter Solstice. The idea of connecting the birth of Jesus to the Winter Solstice had to do with an idea that had originated from Constantine that connected Jesus to the Sun.
Is Christmas Actually Saturnalia?
Many traditions that are associated with Christmas today did actually occur in Saturnalia, but were a bit different than how they are today. Excessive feasting, going door to door and singing, eating baked goods that held human-like images, and exchanging gifts are all things that occurred in the holiday of Saturnalia.
There are those that would argue that these activities were taken from Saturnalia and implanted into Christmas and they would most likely be correct. In a similar manner to how several other holidays have been Christianized over the centuries, these activities were taken from Saturnalia and put into Christmas but were “cleaned” dramatically, for example the elimination of all nudity that was much more common with Saturnalia and the pagan Romans.
However, the truth is that Christmas at its core is more than likely another pagan holiday entirely.
The Holiday Of Sol Invictus
On the 25th of December, not only did the Romans celebrate the Winter Solstice but also the rebirth of the Sun King. See, ever since the time of Emperor Elagabalus, who was Emperor of Rome from 218 AD to 222 AD, there was a cult that was spreading out from the east to the heart of the Roman Empire called the cult of Sol.
Sol was a sun god of Syrian origins promoted by Elagabalus who most likely traces his origins back to the god Malakbel of the ancient culture at Palmyra. Elagabalus attempted to spread the cult around with little to no success in his time, but he planted the seeds that would create a much more powerful cult later.
In the year 270 AD, during the Crisis of the Third Century, a man named Aurelian who was born and raised in the cult of Sol became the Emperor of Rome. Though Aurelian only reigned for five years, he was an absolute monster on the battlefield. He completely dominated Rome’s enemies and crushed various internal revolts to save Rome from what was virtually about to be the end of its civilization.
Reuniting Rome and standing incredibly triumphantly over Rome’s enemies definitely made Aurelian very popular, and the religion that he brought with him became increasingly popular as well. On December 25th, 274 AD, Aurelian successfully established Sol and his holiday as official to the Roman religions alongside the existing accepted cults and faiths.
The Emperors after Aurelian would continue to place an extreme importance on Sol as a deity and some would even go as far as to name him as the supreme being that the other gods obeyed. This all culminated in Emperor Constantine, who was also a worshiper of Sol like his father, Emperor Constantius.
In Constantine’s time, Rome was once again entering into a civil war conflict. Constantine was the leader of one of those sides of the conflict. He claimed, throughout his military campaigns, that he was constantly having visions and dreams of Sol and occasionally other deities with him.
Finally, Constantine had a vision of Jesus and the cross, and was told “In hoc signo vinces” which means “In this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine came into the belief that the Christian God was real and that he and Sol were the same.
Contrary to some of what one may hear today, Constantine did not immediately become a diehard Christian or anti-Pagan. In fact, Constantine did not even make Christianity the state religion of Rome he simply decriminalized Christianity. Actually, Constantine did not even just decriminalize Christianity, he decriminalized basically all religions and was fine with allowing people worship whatever they chose.
Constantine placed a major emphasis on the connection between Sol and Christ, and got many of his followers to convert along with him. The conversion happened to such a degree that by the late 300s AD, there was hardly anyone still writing about Sol and if they were they were using him as a title for Jesus.
There was even debates in Constantine’s time over whether or not Christ was the physical Sun himself that was constantly watching us. Even Augustine later would have debates on this subject of Sol and Christianity in the closing days of Rome’s life.
Though Christmas was not officially celebrated as a holiday by the Romans until after Constantine’s days were over, he held the personal belief that the winter solstice and the renewal of the Sun King celebration were related to Jesus and Christianity. Which follows along with the rest of his logic of these two deities being one and the same.
This shows that while Christmas adopts plenty of Saturnalia’s traditions, the core of Christmas is much more akin to the holiday of Sol Invictus. When taking into account Constantine and the other men that led to Christianity’s rise as the state religion of Rome, and their relation to the cult of Sol, it makes even more sense.
So What Is The Core Of Saturnalia?
Now that the core of Christmas and its more likely relation to Sol than to Saturn has been established, what is left to say about Saturnalia? Is Saturnalia nothing more than a holiday of enjoyment?
The answer is no, Saturnalia is definitely something more. Beyond the feasting, gift giving, and singing, Saturnalia meant a very great deal to the Roman public. Saturnalia involved a very big sacrifice to the god, Saturn, at his temple and commemorated the rising of souls into immortality.
Saturn is a deity who is often associated with death, his imagery with the scythe and the color black would come to inspire the Grim Reaper. Saturnalia reminded Romans of his Golden Age, a period depicted in mythology where Saturn ruled the cosmos. Philosophers and poets alike of the Roman era have called Saturnalia the best of days and described it as a holiday of freedom.
Saturnalia was also a relevant harvest holiday that found shared roots with the Greek holiday of Kronia, which celebrated Cronus (who is believed to be Saturn’s equivalent), and harvest. However, Kronia is celebrated in the summer not the winter.
On Saturnalia, masters of the house would serve the slaves of the house which changed their roles around for the holiday. This was not the only Roman social practice that was turned on its head, gambling was also legalized and public carnivals would be established all over.
Saturnalia was also a holiday observed by everyone, everything had to be suspended. It was even illegal to go to war on Saturnalia, those affairs had to wait for later.
So, in conclusion, Saturnalia had quite a lot of significance to the Romans and was a very solid time of public celebration. The Romans held Saturn as very important, all the way back to the dawn of their civilization in the 700s BC, and in the spirit of continuing to have fun and joy, Roman Christians adopted multiple of these traditions to add to their own winter holiday celebrations. But at their cores, Saturnalia and Christmas are actually different holidays and Christmas most likely relates much more closely on this level to the holiday of Sol Invictus.