Was Christmas originally a pagan holiday?

Was Christmas originally a pagan holiday?

From the pagan festival of Saturnalia to the current holiday season, Christmas has evolved from its ancient roots.

The festival of Saturnalia was an ancient Roman winter solstice festival honoring the deity. The celebration, which began on December 17, was characterized by gift-giving, feasting, and merriment. It is one of the oldest festivals known to man.

Saturnalia was intended as a kind of supplement to the dark “long nights” of the winter season and may have been influenced by earlier Greek holidays.

And so began the pagan influence in what we now know as ‘Christmas’.

The Romans celebrated this day with role reversals or “charivari” (precursors to modern-day carnivals), in which social roles are reversed or otherwise inverted. The celebrants often dressed up according to numerous categories: men would wear women’s clothing and vice versa, masters served their slaves at the table, adults put on masks meant to symbolize the pre-adolescent years.

Saturnalia, however, was not a one-day celebration in Rome. It started on December 17 and held over until the following day when they celebrated the winter solstice, “Sol Invictus,” or “Invincible Sun”.

The latter festival was widely popular among the people.

It is said that Sol Invictus’ popularity contributed to gradually diminishing Saturnalia, which – as a result of being unofficial – gradually became neglected, paganized, and Christianized by theologians, philosophers, and the bishops, such as Macrobius and Saint Augustine.

The Romans did not mark the winter solstice as a day of festivity but rather as one to honor the god, Sol Invictus, whose “return” they welcomed after winter’s short days and long nights.

In 274 AD, Emperor Aurelian introduced the ‘Dies Natalis’ or ‘Nativity’ feast on December 25 to commemorate the ‘Birth of the Unconquerable Sun.’

The Germanic tribes later absorbed the traditions as they moved into Western Europe.

On December 25, about 454 A.D., Pope Leo I designated December 25 as Saint Stephen’s Day to celebrate both the birth of Jesus and his martyrdom in Jerusalem.

The observance eventually spread throughout Europe and became a holiday honoring all saints and martyrs.

Christians in the fifth century re-designed Saturnalia as ‘Christmas’ to include Christmas gifts, caroling, yule logs, and decorations for Yule trees (which later were named “Christmas” trees but are not related to Christianity), ‘wassail’ drinks, and much more.

The Romans eventually distributed their pagan festival of Sol Invictus to countries like Britain and Germany, where it became known as Yule. Today Christmas traditions, including gift-giving, are still celebrated during Yule.

The word Christmas, which is derived from the Old English “Cristes mæsse,” first appears in Wycliffe’s Bible (1384). The term ‘Christmas’ was at first applied only to the day on which the feast was celebrated. It meant simply ‘Christ’s mass.’

In Medieval times some Christians tried to turn the pagan influences of Yule into a Christian holiday, and as Christianity spread throughout the world, so did Saturnalia.

Eventually, pagans took on Christianity through its celebrations and rituals, while Christians accepted pagan traditions, which had become interwoven within their own holidays.

Christmas then became not only one of the most popular days in America for family gatherings but also one of the biggest shopping days of the year!

So as you can see, Christmas has its roots deeply embedded in ancient Roman culture and, more specifically, pagan winter festivals like Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.

And what was celebrated by our earliest ancestors is shared with us today through customs passed down over centuries, such as decorating trees, gift-giving, feasting, singing carols, etc.

Today, Christmas is celebrated by Christians worldwide, but it has not always been so. The early church didn’t celebrate December 25 as the birth date of Jesus. It wasn’t until A.D. 350 that Christmas became widely observed by Christians, and even then, it was not recognized as a day of worship or rest from work or school attendance. It was not until centuries later that Christmas became a day of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, and only within the last few decades has it become a holiday about receiving gifts.

Christmas was officially recognized as a holiday in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine needed to unite the empire, and pagan holidays were used for that purpose.

Many of the modern-day traditions we know today did not exist until much later when Saint Nicholas, a bishop who secretly gave gifts to children in ancient Greece, became the prototype for Santa Claus.

However, there are indeed many similarities between the early celebrations of Saturnalia and our modern-day pagan Christmas celebration. But what we have today is hardly the same as what our ancestors celebrated in the Roman Empire.

If you are still on the hunt for Christmas Decorations, visit our Christmas section! Our Christmas Animal Prints are perfect wall decor for the holidays if you love animals.