The Mis-Use of Roman Records-Juvenalia
When modern critics of Christian Christmas make claims that Christians stole the solstice celebrations they usually mix together their ideas of Roman, Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic winter celebrations into an anachronistic mash or impossibly conflicting claims. The method is to overwhelm people with their supposed “information.” There is just too much data for the average person to absorb. Viewers and readers assume that the people that put the books or programs together must know what they are talking about since they seem to know so much.
It is more accurate to use the words attributed to Henry Wheeler Shaw: “It’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”
The claim about Juvenalia is usually that it was the Roman solstice or early January holiday where the celebration of the youth, singing carols, and gift giving came from. Claims like this are usually made by people who watched the History Channel’s programs and their views of Juvenalia:
“Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.” HC
Juvenalia was actually instituted in 59 A.D. by Emperor Nero to celebrate his first shave at the age of 21.
In other words, he was no longer a child, but an adult. Juvenalia was not a celebration of youth, but of coming out of adolescence to be a real man.
In this article I am listing sources instead of copying the quotes because they are long, but please don’t gloss over what the source says. Go to it and read it. Read each of them.
We can go back to Tacitus (56 – 117 AD), the earliest historian who recorded the invention of Juvenalia. Tacitus was 2 or 3 years old when Nero celebrated his Juvenalia.
Tacitus records Nero’s creation of Juvenalia in his Annales, XIV.15-16 [English/Latin Parallel] XV.33 [English/Latin Parallel] XVI.21 [English/Latin Parallel]
Again, no particular date, nothing about a childhood celebration or gift giving. Nero did command his people to sing or perform lewd songs and acts in the theaters he had constructed for this occasion.
Next is Suetonius (c. 69 – c. 122 AD) [roughly contemporary with Tacitus], who wrote in his The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, [English/Latin] but gives only a very brief account, stating nothing about the date of Nero’s beard shaving party, nor about any child’s gathering or gift giving.
Born almost 100 years after the Nero invented Juvenalia, Cassius Dio (c. 150 – 235 AD) gives a description that is more detailed than that of Tacitus or Seutonius in his Roman History 62.19-21 [Greek Text][English Text] Found in Vol. VIII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1925 LXI:19-21, pp. 77-82.
No date for Nero’s Juvenalia is mentioned by Cassius Dio. He does mention that Nero had theaters constructed for the event. He also mentions that Nero forced people from the high end of society in to humiliating and lewd acts in honor of the emperor’s first shave, which they did because they had a not unreasonable fear that Nero would kill them if they displeased him.
Dio also writes that Domitian (51 – 96 AD, emperor from 81-96) gave Juvenalia games but assigns no date.
So, now we are 175 years after Nero instituted Juvenalia, and we have no date of the year, no mention that this festival is for the good of children, and no mention of gift giving. We do have the fact that Nero constructed theaters for this celebration and commanded performances that included a singing competition. And, of course, Nero was declared the best singer of all.
The choice of December 25th and January 6th for the Christmas observance is already established by the end of the 2nd century AD.
Lexicographer William Smith’s 1870 Dictionary lists his next reference given of Juvenalia to Sidonius Apollinaris, (430 -489 AD) Carmina XXIII.307, 428; but a search of this document came up without results. Perhaps someone else can help finding more on this particular document. The Latin is available here.
Augustan History, “The Three Gordians”, 4 refers to three emperors in the early 3rd century who also instituted Juvenalia games. But these take place after the Church had already established the dates for the celebration of Christmas.
What can be said about Juvenalia is that no particular consistent day of the year or month is given for this festival, though a few Emperors tried to establish such a celebration both immediately after with Domitian, and more than a century after with the Gordian emperors.
Singing was involved with Nero’s debauched celebration. But then singing is associated with almost any celebration one could point to, including the birth of Christ. Do not forget the Angels singing to God in the presence of the Shepherds and the gifts of the Magai to the Christ Child.
The fact that singing was present at Christ’s first Advent was not caused by Nero. It is indeed a perverse logic that would imply that the Gospel writers were trying to win the approval of Nero by including this feature of the Christmas Narrative to win approval of those who complied with Nero’s edict under threat of death.
The earliest mention of Juvenalia with Christmas may come from Alexander Hislop’s 1853 “The Two Babylons” an anti-Roman Catholic member of the Masonic Lodge. Hislop’s work was popularized by Ralph Woodrow’s 1966 “Babylon Mystery Religion.” Woodrow has now recanted and rejected the Biblical and historical errors of Hilsop which he had promoted in that work.
Remember that Hislop is a main theological father of several Millerite and Campbelite groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and also the Christadelphians.
The Roman texts that we were able to survey and to which most critics of Christmas refer actually say nothing about the date of Juvenalia. It has nothing to do with the date of Christmas nor does it have to do with the date of the Solstice. Those texts do point out that Juvenalia was not a child’s festival nor a festival for children, but rather a “coming of age’ celebration for an adolescent male into his manhood. There was theater with singing and acting. But it is not legitimate to claim the cause of Christmas carols is to be credited to Juvenalia because some Romans sang at that celebration.
[this is a slight edit and update of my original Juvenalia post]