19 December 2005

Yo, Saturnalia!

As promised, here’s some background on the history of the celebration of Christmas, the Roman holiday known as Saturnalia, and other aspects of this Winter Solstice time. There exists no record of the celebration of Christmas itself as a distinct holiday until about 350 AD. Before that time (and still to this day in certain Christian traditions), the primary holiday commemorating Christ’s birth was Epiphany.

The most popular winter holiday in ancient Rome was Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, their god of seed and sowing/agriculture. The Winter Solstice was dated December 25 in the Julian calendar (in our modern calendar it falls on December 21), and the festival of Saturn took place for several days beforehand, ranging from a three-day celebration to an entire week (depending on who was Emperor).

By all accounts, Saturnalia was quite a party! It was a time for visiting friends and family and exchanging gifts – candles were a particularly popular gift, possibly signifying the return of the light. Social restrictions were relaxed, slaves were (temporarily) treated as equals, and much merriment ensued.

This was such a popular holiday that at the end of the first century AD, the poet Statius wrote: "For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue."

Well, Saturnalia didn’t continue forever, at least not in its original form. Oh, I’m sure there are a few historical re-enactor types around who still greet each other in December with “Io, Saturnalia” (pronounced "Yo, Saturnalia"), but they’re most likely limited to hard-core Latin language convention attendees.

Early on in the third century, Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) became an official religion of the Empire, celebrating the sun god. The birth date of Sol Invictus was, you guessed it, celebrated on December 25. In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. A new religion meant new official holidays, and I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

Lest we think it was just the Romans who partied hearty around the solstice, remember too that much of Europe celebrated Yule as their winter solstice holiday. In fact, our modern Christmas traditions draw heavily on Yule traditions – Yule logs, mistletoe, holly, and feasting on ham, to name just a few.

Having said all that, does any of this mean that Christians shouldn’t take delight in celebrating Christmas? Of course not! In fact, my next posting here will probably be a take on the celebrations of Christmas itself. I’m only trying to point out that much of what we associate with Christmas (dates, gifts, trees and trimming, feasting and family) is not unique to Christianity. Once again, these may be handy metaphors for communicating the underlying truths, but when people start worshipping the metaphors instead of the truths they’re supposed to represent, that’s when we get into trouble.