How Saturnalia became Christmas: The transition from ancient to present and pagan to Christian

4th Century CE, after which a new winter holiday began to be celebrated in Rome: Christmas. But how was the pagan festival of Saturnalia celebrated, and how did it influence and morph into the Christmas celebrations that we know and love?


Saturnalia was held in honour of the Roman god Saturn and was supposed to represent the revelries of the Golden Age of men: a mythical time where men and gods lived in harmony. Saturnalia itself was an adaptation of the Ancient Greek festival known as Kronia (named after the Greek equivalent of Saturn, Kronos), which was celebrated in midsummer rather than midwinter. It is thought to signify the end of the harvest season to honour Saturn, a god associated with agriculture. Saturnalia was generally considered a merry festival, with lots of feasting and exchanging of gifts. A lot of customs that we associate with Christmas can be traced back to ancient origins, but Saturnalia had its own customs and traditions too.

Some of the key components to celebrating Saturnalia were the reversal of roles: dress codes were relaxed as Romans donned colourful dinner wear instead of a toga and slaves and masters ate together; perhaps the masters even served food to the slaves as Saturnalia practices varied over time. Gambling was also permitted and even encouraged for slaves and masters alike as the feasting and merriment got underway. There was the custom of giving gifts, particularly pottery or wax figures known as sigillaria, as well as other items such as tablets, dice, toys, candles and many more. Gifting verses, in a similar practice to writing Christmas cards, was also common, as documented by Martial and Catullus. Another practice that is attested is the crowning of a Saturnalicius princeps (‘Ruler of the Saturnalia’) who is seen as the master of the proceedings and his commands have to be obeyed by the guests at the feast. It is possible that this originated as a satiric response to the Roman emperors being known as princeps (‘ruler’ or ‘leader’) rather than rex (‘king’), as this tradition was only attested in the Imperial period of Roman history.


Saturnalia image by Antoine Callet depicting a series of people in colourful clothes partying and coming together in Ancient Rome to celebrate the winter festival of Saturnalia in a renaissance style
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet - Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saturnalia_by_Antoine_Callet.jpg

Saturnalia was overall a jolly time of year for Ancient Romans, and celebrations were enjoyed by all. The phrase ‘Io Saturnalia’ is akin to ‘Merry Christmas’, and has a strongly emotive ritual connotation. The festival sets the precedence for Christmas celebrations, and it is undeniable that Saturnalia’s influence lingers on today. The history of the festival is interesting as the traditions shift to reflect the current status of Rome, and eventually, as Rome becomes Christian in the 3rd Century CE the customs begin to shift to reflect this.

The traditions of the Saturnalia were always fluid. During Augustus’ reign, the festival was only two days long, yet Lucian, a later imperial poet, describes it as a seven-day event. Caligula tried to curtail it to five days, but the festivities persisted. The date also shifts; it is always in December, but the climax of the festival shifted from December 25th to the winter solstice and back again. The emperor Domitian tried to assert his authority by making it into a public banquet rather than the private feasting that generally marked the celebrations so that he could control the celebrations. Saturnalia was a festival that was constantly evolving, and this lends itself to a shift from pagan worship to Christian worship.

Rome officially became Christian in 313 CE, but the transition from a pagan society to a Christian society was not an entirely smooth one. Customs, traditions and beliefs were amalgamated into the new Christian society. Rome was not a stranger to fusing different beliefs and traditions: examples such as the worship of Sulis Minerva at Bath (a combination of the Roman goddess Minerva and the local goddess Sulis) shows that beliefs were flexible within Roman society, and the transition of Saturnalia into Christmas furthers this idea.


Bust of Saturn wearing a red hat surrounded by winter foliage including berries, holly and pinecones. There are also smaller statues of wild boars, birds and oil lamps and candles
Io, Saturnalia! - Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Io,_Saturnalia!_(31453908001).jpg

There is evidence that Saturnalia as a festival was celebrated for around a century after the conversion of Rome to Christianity. The religious aspects of the festival honouring Saturn appear to have been gradually lost, instead becoming a popular festival designed to bring happiness in the bleak winter season. The connection with mid-winter and the birth of Jesus Christ wasn’t made until the 2nd century CE, and the first known celebration of Christmas celebrating the birth of Christ is from 354 CE. Jesus’ actual date of birth is unknown, and scholars have estimated that he could have been born in June or perhaps around the spring equinox. Regardless, there is no evidence that the widely celebrated date of Christmas was his actual date of birth. The date of December 25th specifically likely comes from the Roman festival of dies natalis solis invicti (‘day of the birth of the unconquered sun’), a festival specifically celebrating the birth of the sun. This festival was more specifically religious than the general merriment of Saturnalia, and it is noted that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was brought up in the cult of the Sun, so it is possible that the date of Christmas was designed to replace this festival specifically rather than the more ambiguous dates of Saturnalia.


The Catholic Church does not like to associate itself with pagan influences; after all, Christians faced persecution from the polytheistic Roman society for many years. However, it is likely that Christmas traditions and customs do stem from the pagan festival of Saturnalia, even if it is circumstantial, as Christianity became the dominant religion in Rome and overtook the previous pagan traditions. Winter festivals are common around the world, and it makes sense that Saturnalia would have direct influences over the new festival of Christmas in the shifting landscape of the late Roman empire. Gift-giving, feasting and a hearty celebration in December could describe either Saturnalia or Christmas, but Christmas has evolved even further from its pagan roots and even its deeply Christian ties to become a time of joy around the world as families come together and celebrate the year that has passed. Saturnalia did not become Christmas in a linear way, but its influence lingers on.


Written by Mansi Dhokia

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