Did Christianity Steal the Date of Pagan Winter Solstice Celebrations? The Roman celebration discussed in this article is the multi-day festival of Saturnalia.
The Mis-Use of Roman Sources: Saturnalia
In these articles we have seen the texts from the early Christians that show their reasons why they calculated particular dates for the Incarnation and Birth of Christ. These dates were based on the Passover texts. Even their calculation for the dates of the Creation of the universe centered on the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ at the Passover.
Saturnalia is often talked about as if it were the same as Brumalia. And especially with reference to Christmas, these two occasions are also blended together with other hypothetical and real unrelated pagan festivals from various cultures.
Here we are going to separate Saturnalia from Brumalia. The reason for this is simple, they are not the same thing. Though there are some ancient documents that speak about these two occasions as happening at the same general time of the year, there is considerable variation in the ancient texts as to when Saturnalia could actually be celebrated.
Often the claims are that Saturnalia is the origin for Christmas caroling, gift giving, Christmas lights, and even the notion of celebrating the birth of a particular child.
What was Saturnalia?
One of the problems in describing Saturnalia is that there is no single ancient Roman document that describes the festival fully. The closest and fullest description comes from the 5th century A.D. by the hand of Macrobius in his work titled Saturnalia.
Of course, by the 5th century the dates for the Christmas celebration had long been established. So, while the modern claim that Christmas had been moved to December 25th in order to suppress or “baptize” the Saturnalia celebration is without any merit, there are these other aspects of the Saturnalia celebration that modern Christmas revisionists claim the Church stole from the pagan festival.
Saturnalia was a festival dedicated to honoring the pagan god Saturn. In Greece the name of Saturn was Kronos. Very often there are claims that the festival involved the celebration of a special birth. T.C. Schmidt has posted extensive quotations from Macrobius’ (5th Century AD) book titled Saturnalia. The quotations concern the nature and origin and history of the festival of Saturnalia.
From the quotations of Macrobius it becomes apparent that the Romans did not have consistent stories about the origin or the dating of the festival. Macrobius outlined four different traditions for the origin:
- The first tradition claims that the festival was instituted by Janus so that humans would honor their ruler Saturn (who had disappeared) for the gifts Saturn gave to humans: arboriculture, fertilizer, using symbols of Saturn’s effigy holding the sickle (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.24-26)
“ It was during their reign that Saturn suddenly disappeared, and Janus then devised means to add to his honors. First he gave the name Saturnia to all the land which acknowledged his rule; and then he built an altar, instituting rites as to a god and calling these rites the Saturnalia—a fact which goes to show how very much older the festival is than the city of Rome. And it was because Saturn had improved the conditions of life that, by order of Janus, religious honors were paid to him, as his effigy indicates, which received the additional attribute of a sickle, the symbol of harvest.
 Saturn is credited with the invention of the art of grafting, with the cultivation of fruit trees, and with instructing men in everything that belongs to the fertilizing of the fields. Furthermore, at Cyrene his worshipers, when they offer sacrifice to him, crown themselves with fresh figs and present each other with cakes, for they hold that he discovered honey and fruits. Moreover, at Rome men call him “Sterculius,” as having been the first to fertilize the fields with dung (stercus).  His reign is said to have been a time of great happiness, both on account of the universal plenty that then prevailed and because as yet there was no division into bond and free—as one may gather from the complete license enjoyed by slaves at the Saturnalia.”
- Another tradition says the festival was instituted by men Hercules left behind on Saturn hill. In this version the festival was created to help men be respectful of gods. (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.27)
 Another tradition accounts for the Saturnalia as follows. Hercules is said to have left men behind him in Italy, either (as certain authorities hold) because he was angry with them for neglecting to watch over his herds or (as some suppose), deliberately, to protect his altar and temple from attacks. Harassed by brigands, these men occupied a high hill and called themselves Saturnians, from the name which the hill too used previously to bear, and, conscious of the protection afforded to them by the name of Saturn and by the awe which the god inspired, they are said to have instituted the Saturnalia, to the end that the very observance of the festival thus proclaimed might bring the uncouth minds of their neighbors to show a greater respect for the worship of the god.
- A third tradition claims a different geographic origin, that the festival was instituted by the Pelasgians who had migrated into Sicily at the oracle. In this tradition the festival was made to honor and thank Saturn, Dis, and Apollo. This tradition claims that at the festival people originally offered human sacrifices, but Hercules came and convinced them to make masks and burn candles in stead of the human sacrifices. In this particular tradition it is claimed that people of position and power demanded gifts, for a while, from the poor during the festival. (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.28-33)
 I am aware too of the account given by Varro of the origin of the Saturnalia. The Pelasgians, he says, when they were driven from their homes, made for various lands, but most of them flocked to Dodona and, doubtful where to settle, consulted the oracle. They received this reply: “Go ye in search of the land of the Sicels and the Aborigines, a land, sacred to Saturn, even Cotyle, where floateth an island. Mingle with these people and then send a tenth to Phoebus and offer heads to Hades and a man to the Father.”8 Such was the response which they received, and after many wanderings they came to Latium, where in the lake of Cutilia they found a floating9 island,  for there was a large expanse of turf—perhaps solidified mud or perhaps an accumulation of marsh land with brushwood and trees forming a luxuriant wood—and it was drifting through the water by the movement of the waves in such a way as to win credence even for the tale of Delos, the island which, for all its lofty hills and wide plains, used to journey through the seas from place to place.  The discovery of this marvel showed the Pelasgians that here was the home foretold for them. And, after having driven out the Sicilian inhabitants, they took possession of the land, dedicating a tenth of the spoil to Apollo, in accordance with the response given by the oracle, and raising a little shrine to Dis and an altar to Saturn, whose festival they named the Saturnalia.
 For many years they thought to propitiate Dis with human heads and Saturn with the sacrifice of men, since the oracle had bidden them: “Offer heads to Hades and a man (xa) to the Father.” But later, the story goes, Hercules, returning through Italy with the herds of Geryon, persuaded their descendants to replace these unholy sacrifices with others of good omen, by offering to Dis little masks cleverly fashioned to represent the human face, instead of human heads, and by honoring the altars of Saturn with lighted candles instead of with the blood of a man; for the word (porta means “lights” as well as “a man.”  This is the origin of the custom of sending round wax tapers during the Saturnalia, although others think that the practice is derived simply from the fact that it was in the reign of Saturn that we made our way, as though to the light, from a rude and gloomy existence to a knowledge of the liberal arts.  I should add, however, that I have found it written that, since many through greed made the Saturnalia an excuse to solicit and demand gifts from their clients, a practice which bore heavily on those of more slender means, one Publicius, a tribune, proposed to the people that no one should send anything but wax tapers to one richer than himself.
- The last listed tradition says the festival was instituted in Greece further back and adopted by Rome. “The day is kept a holiday, and in country and in town all usually hold joyful feasts, at which each man waits on his own slaves.” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.36-37)
 You have referred, said Praetextatus, to a parallel instance of a change for the better in the ritual of a sacrifice. The point is well taken and well timed. But from the reasons adduced touching the origin of the Saturnalia it appears that the festival is of greater antiquity than the city of Rome, for in fact Lucius Accius” in his Annals says that its regular observance began in Greece before the foundation of Rome.  Here are the lines:
In most of Greece, and above all at Athens, men celebrate in honor of Saturn a festival which they always call the festival of Cronos. The day is kept a holiday, and in country and in town all usually hold joyful feasts, at which each man waits on his own slaves. And so it is with us. Thus from Greece that custom has been handed down, and slaves dine with their masters at that time.
[These Macrobius quotations are Tom Schmidt’s transcriptions of Percival Vaughn Davies Edition, 1969 by Columbia University Press]
Macrobius recorded these four variants on the origin of the festival, but none of them had to do with the birth of a child or the celebration of an infant.
Notice that #3 lists the tradition of using candles and gift giving. #4 brings in feasts and master/slave role reversal.
The implication in the modern revisionists is that Christianity is so un-original:
- that it could have no other real reason than stealing from Saturnalia as justification for using light to celebrate “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Certainly nothing more ancient than Roman Saturnalia, like, for example: Isaiah 60; or a separate tradition at that same time of the year such as the Feast of Dedication/Chanukah (John 10:22) from the period of the Maccabees;
- that without Saturnalia Christians could not possibly conceive of giving gifts in honor of the Christ Child, like those gifts the Wise Men gave to celebrate the Birth of Christ (Matthew 2); or
- that the poverty of the incarnation of the Son of God, the King of Creation to serve poor sinners could not be the example for having a 19th century Anglican carol about a 10th century Bohemian king serve the poor.
No, they say, Christians must have imitated these things from the Saturnalia festival.
When Was Saturnalia?
Macrobius wrote in Book 1 chapter 10 [23-24] of his Saturnalia:
Saturnalia used to be celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January [=19th Dec.], but that it was afterward prolonged to last three days: first, in consequence of the days which Caesar added to the month of December, and then in pursuance of an edict of Augustus which prescribed a series of three rest days for the Saturnalia. The festival therefore begins on the sixteenth day before the Kalends of January [=17th Dec.] and ends on the fourteenth [=19th Dec.], which used to be the only day of its celebration. However, the addition of the feast of the Sigillaria has extended the time of general excitement and religious rejoicing to seven days. …
In the paragraphs preceding this quotation Macrobius lists sources, quotations, and dates for the various claims about when the Saturnalia was celebrated and for how long. T.C. Schmidt posted the entire chapter and put the date information in bold print so that the reader can see uncertainty of dates associated with this celebration. The text follows:
Saturnalia 1.10.1-23 [again, T.C. Schmid’s transcription of the Davies translation (1969)]
[ 1 ] But to return to our account of the Saturnalia. It was held to an offense against religion to begin a war at the time of the Saturnalia, and to punish a criminal during the days of the festival called for an act of atonement.  Our ancestors restricted the Saturnalia to a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but, after Gaius Caesar had added two days to December, the day on which the festival was held became the sixteenth before the Kalends of January, with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage —the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one.
And yet in fact among the men of old time there were some who supposed that the Saturnalia lasted for seven days (if one may use the word “suppose” of something which has the support of competent authorities);  for Novius, that excellent writer of Atellan plays, says: “Long awaited they come, the seven days of the Saturnalia” [Ribbeck, II, 328]; and Mummius too, who, after Novius and Pomponius, restored the long-neglected Atellan to favor, says: “Of the many excellent institutions of our ancestors this is the best—that they made the seven days of the Saturnalia begin when the weather is coldest” [Ribbeck, II, 332].
 Mallius, however, says that the men who, as I have already related, had found protection in the name of Saturn and in the awe which he inspired, ordained a three-day festival in honor of the god, calling it the Saturnalia, and that it was on the authority of this belief that Augustus, in his laws for the administration of justice, ordered the three days to be kept as rest days.
 Masurius and others believed that the Saturnalia were held on one day, the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January, and their opinion is corroborated by Fenestella when he says that the virgin Aemilia was condemned on the fifteenth day before the Kalends of January; for, had that day been a day on which the festival of the Saturnalia was being celebrated, she could not by any means have been called on to plead,  and he adds that “the day was the day which preceded the Saturnalia,” and then goes on to say that “on the day after that, namely, the thirteenth day before the Kalends of January, the virgin Licinia was to plead,” thereby making it clear that the thirteenth day too was not a festival.
[ 7 ] On the twelfth day before the Kalends of January there is a rest day in honor of the goddess Angeronia, to whom the pontiffs offer sacrifice in the chapel of Volupia. According to Verrius Flac-cus, this goddess is called Angeronia because, duly propitiated, she banishes anxiety (angores) and mental distress.  Masurius adds that an image of this goddess, with the mouth bound up and sealed,1 is placed on the altar of Volupia, because all who conceal their pain and care find, thanks to their endurance, great joy (voluptas) at last.  According to Julius Modestus, however, sacrifices are offered to Angeronia because, pursuant to the fulfillment of a vow, she delivered the Roman people from the disease known as the quinsy (angina).
 The eleventh day before the Kalends of January is a rest day in honor of the Lares, for whom the praetor Aemilius Regillus in the war against Antiochus solemnly promised to provide a temple in the Campus Martius.
 The tenth day before the Kalends is a rest day in honor of Jupiter, called the Larentinalia. I should like to say something of this day, and here are the beliefs generally held about it.
 In the reign of Ancus, they say, a sacristan of the temple of Hercules, having nothing to do during the rest day challenged the god to a game of dice, throwing for both players himself, and the stake for which they played was a dinner and the company of a courtesan.  Hercules won, and so the sacristan shut up Acca Larentia in the temple (she was the most notable courtesan of the time) and the dinner with her. Next day the woman let it be known that the god as a reward for her favors had bidden her take advantage of the first opportunity that came to her on her way home. [ 14] It so happened that, after she had left the temple, one Carutius, captivated by her beauty, accosted her, and in compliance with his wishes she married him. On her husband’s death all his estate came into her hands, and, when she died, she named the Roman people her heir.  Ancus therefore had her buried in the Velabrum, the most frequented part of the city, and a yearly rite was instituted in her honor, at which sacrifice was offered by a priest to her departed spirit—the rest day being dedicated to Jupiter because it was believed of old that souls are given by him and are given back to him again after death.  Cato, however, says that Larentia, enriched by the profits of her profession, left lands known as the Turacian, Semurian, Lintirian, and Solinian lands to the Roman people after her death and was therefore deemed worthy of a splendid tomb and the honor of an annual service of remembrance.  But Macer, in the first Book of his Histories, maintains that Acca Larentia was the wife of Faustulus and the nurse of Romulus and Remus and that in the reign of Romulus she married a weajthy Etruscan named Carutius, succeeded to her husband’s wealth as his heir, and afterward left it to her foster child Romulus, who dutifully appointed a memorial service and a festival in her honor.
 One can infer, then, from all that has been said, that the Saturnalia lasted but one day and was held only on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January; it was on this day alone that the shout of “Io Saturnalia” would be raised, in the temple of Saturn, at a riotous feast. Now, however, during the celebration of the Saturnalia, this day is allotted to the festival of the Opalia, although the day was first assigned to Saturn and Ops in common.
 Men believed that the goddess Ops was the wife of Saturn and that both the Saturnalia and the jOpalia are held in this month of December because the produce of the fields and orchards are thought to be the discovery of these two deities, who, when men have gathered in the fruits of the earth, are worshiped therefore as the givers of a more civilized life.  Some too are of the opinion that Saturn and Ops represent heaven and earth, the name Saturn being derived from the word for growth from seed (satus), since such growth is the gift of heaven, and the name Ops being identified with earth, either because it is by her bounty (ops) that life is nourished or because the name comes from the toil (opus) which is needed to bring forth the fruits of trees and fields.  When men make prayer to Ops they sit and are careful to touch the earth, signifying thereby that the earth is the very mother of mortals and is to be approached as such.
 Philochorus says that Cecrops was the first to build, in Attica, an altar to Saturn and Ops, worshiping these deities as Jupiter and Earth, and to ordain that, when crops and fruits had been garnered, the head of a household everywhere should eat thereof in company with the slaves with whom he had borne the toil of cultivating the land, for it was well pleasing to the god that honor should be paid to the slaves in consideration of their labor. And that is why we follow the practice of a foreign land and offer sacrifice to Saturn with the head uncovered.
 I think that we have now given abundant proof that the festival of the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but that it was afterward prolonged to last three days: first, in consequence of the days which Caesar added to the month of December, and then in pursuance of an edict of Augustus which prescribed a series of three rest days for the Saturnalia. The festival therefore begins on the sixteenth day before the Kalends of January and ends on the fourteenth, which used to be the only day of its celebration.5  However, the addition of the feast of the Sigillaria has extended the time of general excitement and religious rejoicing to seven days.
Macrobius does an excellent job summarizing authorities that were available to him, most of which I think have been lost. His conclusion is quite clear, Saturnalia originally was one day and occurred on the 14th day before the Kalends January, but when Caesar altered the calendar it was extended to three days and started on the 16th, later a new Festival of Sigillaria extended the celebrations to complete seven days, meaning that the Festival ended on either the 10th or ninth day before the Kalends of January depending on how we count. Of course neither of these days fall on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, that is December 25.
The information from Macrobius is the most thorough. None of the more ancient sources contradict him. In fact, what we have of the ancient sources that speak of dates merely confirm what Macrobius wrote.
Based on Macrobius as well as other ancient Roman sources, the date of Christmas has nothing to do with the dating of Saturnalia.
[This is an updated and expanded version of my original article on Saturnalia]