Christmas and Pagan Romans – 2

They had inherited from the Jewish first Christians the conviction that the pagan gods and goddesses were demons, and if you worshipped them you were demon possessed. That’s why the catechesis for converts took so long and involved so many careful exorcisms. That’s why the early Christians would not offer so much as one grain of incense to the pagan gods. That’s why, rather than do so, they were willing to be deprived of their property, exiled, imprisoned, tortured and killed. So we’re supposed to believe that in the early fourth century the Christians did a complete about face and said, “Well, I guess we were wrong about paganism. Gee, what a waste all those martyrdoms were. You know, it’s going to be real popular to adopt that Saturnalia festival, and we’re going to get lots of new converts that way. Let’s do it!” I doubt it.

The second objection to such seemingly sensible theories is that the theorists fall into the error of believing that similarities demand causation. That is to say that if two things are similar one must have influenced the other. Similarities might involve causation, but they do not demand causation. Primitive people may have worshipped the sun in Mexico and the Middle East, in Egypt and Asia, in Norway and New Zealand, but it doesn’t mean that all the ancient religions influenced each other. It might just be that human beings everywhere have a natural inclination to worship the sun. Just because the Romans had a mid winter festival honoring Saturn does not demand that the Christians copied it–even if the similarities suggest it.

When trying to solve the mystery of the relationship between Christmas and the Saturnalia we have to consider not only the similarities, but the differences. The Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 – 23. Okay that’s pretty close to the December 25 date for Christmas–but if they were copying the Saturnalia, why didn’t the early Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ on December 17? At the Saturnalia they had a feast. Good. Christians had a feast too. The Romans gave each other gifts as part of the celebration. There’s a match. Christians did too. However, the Romans also wore silly hats, got drunk, danced naked in the streets, propped up the statue of Saturn on a couch to observe the revelries, reversed roles between slaves and masters, and put green drapes around their doorways. None of those fun activities are part of Christmas.

The most glaring difference is in the meaning of the celebration itself. If there were some sort of link with the birth of Christ you would expect that the meaning of the Saturnalia might have something to do with the coming of light in the dark time of the year or the birth of new life in the midst of the cold and dark. The Saturnalia has none of those themes. Instead, Saturn was the god of agricultural plenty, with the shadow side, (in the earlier myths) of being associated with human sacrifice. It’s roots are in the old, “Let’s sacrifice some of our kids to appease the god so he’ll make our crops grow” type of paganism. Nothing there about the light dawning in the darkness or the blessing of new life in the midst of the bleak mid winter. So in fact, about the only things that are similar between Christmas and the Saturnalia are that they both happened in December, people had a nice meal and gave gifts to each other.

Not so fast. The plot thickens. Read More