Ever wonder where Christmas came from? It certainly isn’t the actual birth of Christ…many biblical scholars agree on this. The year of his birth is likely incorrect as well, as our calendar was constructed by a monk several hundred years after Christ died. The christian church chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, the culmination of the pagan festival of Saturnalia, celebrated throughout much of the Roman Empire for several centuries.
In Rome, Saturnalia was characterized by inversion of social hierarchy, with masters serving their slaves. Romans also enjoyed gift-giving, feasting, and drinking. In other areas of the Empire, Saturnalia was a time of lawlessness, feasting and excess. Common practice involved carousing (or “caroling”) through the streets, inebriated and naked, engaging in all manner of debauchery and foolishness. In some areas a sacrificial victim was executed. Kissing under mistletoe may in fact be a holdover of Druidic sacrifice (involving the poisonous plant) held at the solstice, combined with the sexual license of the festival.
Saturnailia was one of the most popular Roman holidays, and the christian church managed to convert many pagans by promising the continuance of the festival. As christianity expanded, other pagan festivals held during this time of year were absorbed under the mantle of Christmas. Many years later the Puritans of many American colonies outlawed the practice of Christmas because of it’s pagan origins. So this year while your exchanging gifts, stuffing yourself with food, or enjoying some cocktails and caroling, thank the Romans… they knew how to have some fun.