Christmas was NOT based on the Roman Juvenalia

In his continuing series that we’ve been blogging about exploding the myth that Christmas was based on a pagan holiday, Rev. Joseph Abrahamson takes on the view recently pushed on the History Channel that Christmas, along with customs like singing carols, doing things for children, and gift-giving, grew out of the Roman solstice feast of Juvenalia:

The claim about Juvenalia is usually that it was the Roman solstice or early January holiday where the celebration of the youth, singing carols, and gift giving came from. Claims like this are usually made by people who watched the History Channel’s programs and their views of Juvenalia:

“Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.” HC

Juvenalia was actually instituted in A.D. 59 by Emperor Nero to celebrate his first shave at the age of 21.

In other words, he was no longer a child, but an adult. Juvenalia was not a celebration of youth, but of coming out of adolescence to be a real man.

In this article I am listing sources instead of copying the quotes because they are long, but please don’t gloss over what the source says. Go to it and read it. Read each of them.

We can go back to Tacitus (AD 56 – 117), the earliest historian who recorded the invention of Juvenalia. Tacitus was 2 or 3 years old when Nero celebrated his Juvenalia.

Tacitus records Nero’s creation of Juvenalia in his Annales, XIV.15-16 [English/Latin Parallel] XV.33 [English/Latin Parallel] XVI.21 [English/Latin Parallel]

Again, no particular date, nothing about a childhood celebration or gift giving. Nero did command his people to sing or perform lewd songs and acts in the theaters he had constructed for this occasion.

Next is Suetonius (c. AD 69 – c. 122) [roughly contemporary with Tacitus], who wrote in his The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, [English/Latin] but gives only a very brief account, stating nothing about the date of Nero’s beard shaving party, nor about any child’s gathering or gift giving.

Born almost 100 years after the Nero invented Juvenalia, Cassius Dio (AD c. 150 – 235) gives a description that is more detailed than that of Tacitus or Seutonius in his Roman History 62.19-21 [Greek Text][English Text] Found in Vol. VIII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1925 LXI:19-21, pp. 77-82.

No date for Nero’s Juvenalia is mentioned by Cassius Dio. He does mention that Nero had theaters constructed for the event. He also mentions that Nero forced people from the high end of society in to humiliating and lewd acts in honor of the emperor’s first shave, which they did because they had a not unreasonable fear that Nero would kill them if they displeased him.

Dio also writes that Domitian (AD 51 – 96, emperor from 81-96)gave Juvenalia games but assigns no date.

So, now we are 175 years after Nero instituted Juvenalia, and we have no date of the year, no mention that this festival is for the good of children, and no mention of gift giving. We do have the fact that Nero constructed theaters for this celebration and commanded performances that included a singing competition. And, of course, Nero was declared the best singer of all.

The choice of December 25th and January 6th for the Christmas observance is already established by the end of the 2nd century AD.

via Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Pagan Solstice Celebrations 2.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • forrest evans

    Relax, don’t worry about it. Seems you are right about juvenalia, but it’s not a matter of debate that Christians always adopted local customs; they had to in order to be accepted. Does it offend your sense of specialness to learn that christian traditions are all pagan traditions modified? That christian saints are often the old gods and goddesses dressed up in new clothes? Christmas has little to do with the birth of a Jewish man in the Roman empire. The church has less to do with him, and he had little use for church. The story of Jesus is one story, the story od the building of a dominant religion is another. It’s all a fascinating story of power and politics. Read about the early Celtic church, which was a blend of the old ways and Christianity until Augustine put an end to it. Study antiquity with an open mind and see the interesting story of people creating a dominant cult. The christian church has had a good run, it’s time for new myths.

  • forrest evans

    Relax, don’t worry about it. Seems you are right about juvenalia, but it’s not a matter of debate that Christians always adopted local customs; they had to in order to be accepted. Does it offend your sense of specialness to learn that christian traditions are all pagan traditions modified? That christian saints are often the old gods and goddesses dressed up in new clothes? Christmas has little to do with the birth of a Jewish man in the Roman empire. The church has less to do with him, and he had little use for church. The story of Jesus is one story, the story od the building of a dominant religion is another. It’s all a fascinating story of power and politics. Read about the early Celtic church, which was a blend of the old ways and Christianity until Augustine put an end to it. Study antiquity with an open mind and see the interesting story of people creating a dominant cult. The christian church has had a good run, it’s time for new myths.


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