Christmas Was Originally The Roman Feast Of Saturnalia



—“The festival of Saturn fell on December 17, but its popular celebration lasted for seven days. It began as a country festival in the time when agriculture was one of the chief activities of the Romans. But soon it produced licentiousness and gambling. During these seven days city officials condoned conduct that they would not have tolerated at any other season. One feature of the occasion was the license al- lowed to slaves, who were permitted to treat their masters as if they were their social equals. Frequently indeed masters and slaves changed places and the latter were waited on by the former. Another feature of the celebration was the exchange of gifts, such as candles (cerei) which are supposed to have symbolized the increasing power of the sunlight after the winter solstice, and little puppets of paste or earthenware (sigillaria), the exact significance of which is obscure. It was a season of hilarity and goodwill . .

“The extremists who have said that Christmas was intended to replace the Saturnalia have vastly overstated the case. Nor is it of any importance that Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis in Cyprus in the fourth century, places the Saturnalia on the twenty-fifth of December. This is not the only error in the list of dates in which it occurs. Without doubt, however, many of the customs of the Saturnalia were transferred to Christmas. Although the dates did not exactly coincide, for the Saturnalia proper fell on the seventeenth of December, the time of year was practically the same, and it has already been pointed out how frequently festivals of the merrymaking type occur among various peoples at this season. Fowler, mentioning the goodwill that so generally characterizes these celebrations, raises the question whether this was one of the reasons why Christmas was put at the winter solstice. Possibly, as has also been suggested, the post-ponement of the festivities from the date of the Saturnalia to Christmas week was in part at least caused by the institution of the Advent fast covering the period of the four Sundays before Christmas.


“Certainly many of the customs of the Christmas season go back to the Roman festival. In it lies the origin of the excessive eating and drinking, the plethora of sweets, the playing of games, and the exchange of gifts. Nor can we fail to connect our custom of burning candles with the candles (cerei) that were so conspicuously a part of the Saturnalia. Moreover, our Christmas holidays, like the Roman festival, are approximately a week...

“In mediaeval times there were still other survivals,

and the king of the Saturnalia is obviously the prototype not only of the Abbot of Unreason who at one time pre- sided over the Christmas revels in Scotland, but also of the Lord of Misrule in England and the Abbe de Liesse in Lille. This mock dignitary had other titles . .


“We hear also of the Boy-Bishop (Episcopus Puerorum), whose authority lasted from St. Nicholas’ day (December 6) till Childermas (December 28) and whose tradition (as well as that of the Bishop of Unrea- son) still survives to a certain extent on Santa Claus. Apparently the compromise bade by the Church in adapt- ing the customs of the Saturnalia to Christian practice had little or no effect on checking the license of the festival. This continued through the whole Christmas festival and sometimes lasted till the day of Epiphany (January 6). We find many criticisms by churchmen or councils. In England Henry VIII issued a proclamation in 1542, abolishing the revels, but Mary restored them in 1554.”—Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion (New York: Longmans, 1931), 58, 62-65.


Christmas, Easter, and Halloween

by Vance Ferrell

 

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