- Kathryn Patterson
From Saturnalia to Santa: How We Borrow Christmas
In the early 19th century, Caleb Cotton wrote “Imitation is the sincerest flattery”, a quote worth noting because throughout history humans have borrowed or imitated culture, ideas, rituals, and songs from each other:
As the Roman Republic expanded and grew into an empire, they absorbed many foreign belief systems into their own with the Greek pantheon being the most obvious.
When the United States was a burgeoning country, Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics to “My Country tis of thee” but ironically used the melody to “God Save the Queen”.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo. a 16th century painter, fascinated Salvador Dali and other surrealists. Sali borrowed Arcimboldo’s idea of hidden faces and expanded it into hidden pictures in many of his works.
In the early 2000s, fashion designers mysteriously decided to bring back the 1970s, leading to bell bottom jeans and platform shoes becoming popular again.
Saturnalia In Roman mythology, Saturn (Latin: Saturnus) is the father of all the gods, equivalent to the Etruscan Satre or the Greek Kronos. Worshipped for several centuries, Saturn not only had a vast array of myths, but he also was the god of plenty, wealth, generations, peace, the harvest, and time. Actually, ancient man attributed Saturn with more characteristics. But these characteristics are relevant to Saturnalia. The Romans celebrated Saturn and the anniversary of the Temple of Saturn with a multi-day festival. The length of the festival changed over the centuries, from as short as three days to as long as a week, but generally Saturnalia started on December 17th and ended around December 23th. Saturnalia occurred after the harvest, before the next crops began to show. On one hand, the celebration was an entreaty to the sun to rise again, to help the next crops grow properly. On the other hand, the celebration marked the beginning of a new year, as the days began to lengthen again. Both reasons fit Saturn since he oversaw the harvest, prosperity, and time.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
During the celebration, the government effectively shut down. The courts did not hold session, exercise regimens were cancelled, schools were closed, and people dressed in bright clothing. Roman citizens all wore a pileus (pictured left), a felted hat normally worn by freed slaves. This practice made everyone visibly equal, another facet of Saturnalia. For those brief days, slaves and masters were more equal. Slaves were allowed to play dice, gamble, and freely speak their mind. Some formed groups that roamed around, singing jovial songs. Another aspect of the closed government was that government officials could not declare war. For a few short days, the Roman Empire lived in peace. Romans spent the last day of Saturnalia, called Sigillaria, giving gifts to their friends, family, and sometimes enemies. Journals and diaries that survive from that time show that the gifts varied, from money to clothing to jewelry to joke gifts. Sometimes a verse or two accompanied the gift. The last day also included a feast for the slaves and masters. First, the slaves dressed in their best clothes, and were served a brilliant feast. Afterwards, the slaves changed clothes and served the master his feast. If a master had enough money, he sacrificed a suckling pig for the meal. From Saturnalia, we get a multi-day celebration, wearing special clothing, exchanging gifts, exchanging cards (verses), wearing a stocking cap, taking a break from work, Christmas dinner, Christmas caroling, and the Christmas ham.
Dies Natalis Solis Invicti Immediately after Saturnalia, on December 25th, the Romans celebrated the birth of two separate sun gods - Sol Invicti and Mithras. The worship of Mithras began sometime in the first century, rose to its peak in the second and third centuries, and died out in the fourth century. Not much is known about Mithras, but we do know he’s somehow related to Mithra, the Zoroastrian angel of covenant and oath. Mithra became Mithras, a Persian sun god, and then a Roman sun god. The Romans celebrated the birth of Mithras, a man wearing a Phyrgian cap emerging from a rock, on the same day of the birth of Sol Invictus. Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the Roman empire starting in 274 AD, though there is evidence of his worship from 102 AD to the fifth century. Emperor Augustine warned people against the worship of Sol in the fifth century. In the 4th century, the Catholic Church realized that the general populace viewed Christ as a metaphysical concept, not the literal son of God. To combat this problem, the church decided to give Jesus an actual birth date. That is when, according to 12-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, the Church decided to use the birthday of the Roman god Sol (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti):
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day." (“Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries”, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155)