Its that time again. Eating. Drinking. Music. Exchanging gifts. Decorating trees.
Well, maybe not. It used to be Saturnalia. But with the emergence of a small Judean religious sect and its remarkable growth in adherents in the West that far exceeded its adherents in its native land, Saturnalia is all but forgotten.
They have taken Saturn out of Saturnalia.
Saturn is the name of the Roman god of agriculture and harvest. He is associated with the goddess of plenty. The weekly time of partying, Saturday, is named for him.
Between December 17 and 23, Romans honored him with a feast. Romans decorated the trees on the grounds of their villas. They ate, drank, exchanged gifts, and made merry by saying “Lo! Saturnalia.” Slaves and their owners exchanged roles. The slaveholders served and the slaves enjoyed be served. The holiday also served as a transition into the celebration of the Dies Natalis Solis Invictis, or Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. This latter festival honored the birthday of the sun god, which fell on December 25, the date of the winter solstice according to the old Julian calendar. Disagreement exists over how early and in what form worship of the sun took place.
Meanwhile, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. The resurrection emerged as the most important Christian festival because of its theological importance. In addition, the Church more easily could settle on a date since the crucifixion and resurrection coincided with the Hebrew Passover Feast. Over several decades, however, the celebration of the birth of Jesus grew in importance. But the church celebrated it on different days in different parts of the empire. The Church in Rome celebrated the day on December 25, possibly based upon calculations by Pope Julius 1. As Rome grew and achieved primacy over the rest of the church in its theology and authority, the December 25 date became standard through out the Church for “Christ’s Mass.”
No direct evidence suggests that the Church authorities chose the date to obscure the pagan festivals of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus. But some church fathers noted the coincidence. Cyprian (?-258) noted “How wonderfully acted providence that on the day when that sun was born, Christ should be born.” In addition, Chrysostom wrote that “Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December. But they call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered.' But who indeed is unconquered as our Lord?”
As Christianity spread, Christmas became intermingled with additional pagan winter celebration traditions: yule logs, mistletoe, and Christmas trees. Today it offers a syncretistic something for everyone.
So, “Lo Saturnalia.” And “Merry Christmas.”