Monday, December 23, 2013

Io Saturnalia!—The Roots of Christmas

Steven Cromack

Emperor Constantine I. Detail of the mosaic in Hagia Sophia.
Christmas is a fascinating holiday, and one that has been two thousand years in the making. Christmas today is the confluence of ancient traditions, Constantine Christianity, and American capitalism. The roots of the holiday lie not in the birth of a deity, but with the Roman festival of Saturnalia; it was the
Emperor Constantine who made the day about “Christ’s mass.”

The Punic Wars made some Romans very wealthy and drastically increased the number of slaves. As wealthy tyrants battled for control, many plebeians yearned for equality, identity, as well as an end to envy and despair. Out of their misery came the annual celebration known as Saturnalia. “Io Saturnalia” was a shout that embodied the reign of Saturn, a time during which there were bountiful harvests and universal plenty. The Greek satirist Lucian recorded a conversation between Cronus, known as Saturn by the Romans, and his priest about the holiday celebrated between December 17 and 25:

Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.

In addition to drunken debauchery, the Romans numbed the pain of inequality by forcing themselves to give gifts. Drinking, noise, games, caroling, and giving gifts are all part of the Christmas tradition.

By the 4th Century, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and spent his reign trying to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. In an attempt to convert the masses, he chose December 25 as the birthdate of Jesus with the hope that celebrating the birth of the deity would attract the pagans by absorbing the festival of Saturnalia. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated with partying, gift giving, and drunkenness. In many cases, Church officials oversaw and encouraged the festivities.

This is why the Puritans hated the holiday with every fiber of their being. In his book The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum shows how Christmas changed from a holiday of drunkenness into the quintessential American holiday. The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston declared that the only reason people celebrated the holiday on December 25 was that “the Heathen’s Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”