Think Christmas is about Christ? Think again. It’s very much a pagan holiday, folks, not unlike St. Valentine’s Day, which has its origins in Rome’s Lupercalia festival. Or perhaps it’s better to describe Christmas as an amalgamation of several pagan holidays and traditions superimposed upon the birth of a singular god made flesh, through the birth canal of a girl impregnated by the holy spirit.
In my late teens and early twenties, I was an Ancient Rome obsessive, reading works from Julius Caesar’s great book “The Civil War” and Cicero’s political speeches to Roman military maneuvers and the technological feats required to maintain an empire (aqueducts and sewer systems). The popularity of the Gracchi, brothers Tiberius and Gaius, also appealed to me, being Tribunes of the people and thus champions of Rome’s lower classes.
Then, of course, I ventured into other more esoteric Roman history by way of Robert Graves’ classic novel “I, Claudius” (which I recommend to all), which led me to the peculiarities of Roman pagan religion, as well as to one of the first great satires “The Golden Ass,” written by Lucius Apeulius and translated into English by Graves himself. And no survey of Roman civilization would be complete without mention of Lucretius’ De rerum natura or ”On the Nature of Things,” which introduced to the world the concept of the Clinamen, or “swerve,” the name given to the unpredictable movement of atoms.
All of these things led me, in perhaps a brief moment of insanity, to study Latin in my freshman year of university; and, even more absurdly, to consider a career (on the recommendation of a professor) to study the classics. No doubt such a decision would have put me in good stead for employment opportunities, especially in this economy. Nevertheless, I still enjoy reading Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and Virgil’s poetry.
The point of this Shandian digression is to convey to my readers that I’m not pulling Roman history out of my ass.
We know that there is no definitive proof for the date for Jesus Christ’s birth (that is, if he ever existed at all). We also know that late December in Rome, and throughout the Latin region at large, was a time full of anarchic tomfoolery known as Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was the winter solstice festival—a time when the social order of Rome was inverted, when the lower classes became the upper class and vice versa; when people wore masks, got drunk, diddled one another and spoke freely without repurcussions. It was held from December 17th through the 25th. And like Christmas, gift giving was common, though it was later banned by the Catholic Church. In the late Roman years, the Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “Day of the birth of the Unconquered Sun,” on December 25th, though the Vatican says any influence on Christmas is tenuous.
Then, of course, there are the Christmas tree, mistletoe and yule log. Anyone who has ever studied or come into any remote contact with pagan history will know that trees, or nature, were worshipped by various pagan civilizations, from Celtic to Middle Eastern tribes. Mistletoe factors into several ancient civilizations from Greece to Germany. At some point it was incorporated into Christianity and then Christmas. The yule log has its origins in pagan Germany, though there is some debate over whether or not it had religious uses or was simply festive. That said, what was festive in pagan times was usually religious, although perhaps not incredibly so.
The Germans also held a festival on December 25th known as Mōdraniht, or “Night of the Mothers,” but this is only attested in the 8th century. And though any influence it might have had on the Christmas is negligible, that the pagan Anglo-Saxons held the day sacred is certainly interesting within the context of Christmas.
However, the most interesting connection between Christmas and paganism, to my mind, is still Saturnalia, a festival that the early Christians would not have wanted to disrupt, and might well have wanted to use as a means of infiltrating the impressionable minds of the populace.
As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor of history at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”
The rest, as they say, is history.